Rennie Harris’ Lazarus – the first two-act production to be mounted on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – premiered, last November, at New York City Center as part of the company’s 60th anniversary with Harris deriving inspiration from Ailey's life (he died in 1989, aged just 58). It is a powerful tribute to the courage and ambition of this African American cultural legend, pursuing his dream at a time of appalling racial iniquity, segregation and violence.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in <i>Lazarus</i> © Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Lazarus
© Paul Kolnik

The company has three As in its title but, to my mind, this programme sets the case for it to have four, because the profundity of the African American cause is so central to this fine pair of works that it certainly seems in the hinterland of being culturally inappropriate for me – a white Englishman – to comment on the content or the narrative. I can see the references to pain, anguish and isolation in Lazarus (notably in the first act) and I can understand the thematic restorative, uplifting power of dance – emphasised through the titular reference to the biblical event; but, I am never going to feel it through the ‘blood memory’ that links the majority of these dancers and this audience to that past. It strikes me that the essence of AAADT is absorbed into that concept of ‘blood memory’.

The 40th anniversary of Ailey’s death is imminent and none of the active members in today’s company, including artistic director, Robert Battle, knew him, but Ailey’s force is nonetheless present in Lazarus, not least since we hear his voice in the eclectic soundscape (by Darrin Ross) in audio extracts from a 1984 TV programme featuring amongst a kaleidoscope of sound that also includes tinkling piano keys mixed with mouth organ; hand-clapping; spoken text; a deconstructed interpretation of Nina Simone performing Feeling Good; the deep guttural boom of a Dolby sound system; and – most tellingly - the repetitive text in Michael Kiwanuka’s (recorded) performance of Black Man In A White World.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in <i>Lazarus</i> © Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Lazarus
© Paul Kolnik

Harris’ dance style is as diverse as that soundtrack, featuring sundry references to street dance, in stylised b-boy spins and the rhythmic bounce that one might associate with Gangsta Walking and Memphis Jookin. Two ensemble sequences seemed to reference the fast heel-and-toe movements, “running man” and T-steps of the fashionable club-scene craze of shuffle dancing, as performers transitioned from the barefoot movement of act one to uniform sneakers in Act 2.

I can’t pretend to have “got” the powerful legacy significances of Lazarus but the stagecraft, powerful lighting (by James Clotfelter), the separate and distinctive qualities of the two acts and – above all else – slick choreography and superb skill of these outstanding, characterful dancers made for a compelling work. I recall being similarly impressed by Harris’ Exodus on the company’s last visit to London, exactly three years’ ago.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jacqueline Green in <i>Lazarus</i> © Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jacqueline Green in Lazarus
© Paul Kolnik

Ailey used the experiences of his Texan childhood in the Great Depression of the 1930s to create Revelations, the company’s signature work, dating from 1960, and performed to end virtually every programme that the company dances. Thankfully, it is a work of which I will never tire (in my view one of the great and enduring dance works of the 20th century).

Sadness and grief imbue several of the ten dance sections that comprise Revelations, notably in the opening I Been ‘Buked and Fix Me, Jesus and in the salutary Sinner Man, which sees Jeroboam Bozeman, Chalvar Monteiro and Solomon Dumas running away from an unseen and sinister threat, as if escapees from a chain gang. But, optimism and joy prevail in I Wanna Be Ready (a memorable solo by company veteran, Clifton Brown) and Wade in the Water (arresting performances by Jacquelin Harris and Jacqueline Green). The closing number, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, is guaranteed to inject an enthusiastic response into every audience. It seems such a shame that those who rush out after the first curtain call miss its ubiquitous reprise: you just can’t have too much of a good thing!

****1