The third and final instalment of this educative and entertaining London season for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater focused on life-changing inspiration, a theme that is the beating heart of this 60-year old company. It is shouted loudly from this programme’s get-go in Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Ounce of Faith, the newest of the works brought to London and the only one of 2019 vintage (it premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center, in June).

AAADT's Jacqueline Green in <i>Members Don't Get Weary</i> © Paul Kolnik
AAADT's Jacqueline Green in Members Don't Get Weary
© Paul Kolnik

Although a prolific and versatile choreographer, with works in the repertoire of many US companies, this is Moultrie’s first work on the main Ailey ensemble and, as suggested by the title, it is all about inspiration, education and – above all – the unwavering belief of mentors, as explained in the choreographer’s own voiceover: “If someone has an ounce of faith in you, it can change your life.” Moultrie credits his particular ounce to an unnamed third grade teacher and experiencing an Ailey performance as a child.

The work opens starkly, before the choreographer’s voiceover, with two dozen, motionless performers staring into the auditorium. Suddenly, from the back of this group, the tall, elegant figure of Khalia Campbell stalks forward, eyes firmly fixed ahead, already distinguishable from the mass in an orange-sparkling leotard. As she reaches the front of the stage, a black curtain cuts off the other dancers, isolating and exposing her solo to the anthemic Lift Every Voice and Sing (Till Heaven and Earth Ring), a powerful poem set to music, which became a rallying cry for African Americans. Campbell’s solo resembles a chain of dance exercises but her movements are invested with undercurrents of struggle and pride.

When the curtain re-rises, the ensemble is back but changed, wearing flashy costumes (designed by Mark Eric) and performing to Wynton Marsalis’s Logo Talk, composed for the Congo Square album (a collaboration with the Ghanaian drummer, Yacub Addy). Incidentally, Congo Square, in New Orleans (where Marsalis was born), has huge significance to African Americans since it was the only place where slaves were allowed to publicly perform their own music and dance in the 18th and 19th centuries. The accompanying choreography was effervescent, in colourful costumes that seemed to fizz like cascading fireworks, an organised freneticism that somehow resembled a professionals’ group dance on Strictly.

AAADT in <i>Members Don't Get Weary</i> © Paul Kolnik
AAADT in Members Don't Get Weary
© Paul Kolnik

Marsalis’ smooth trumpeting came to the fore in the haunting recording of Richard Rodgers’ Where or When, danced with tenderness by a male trio. The final section was quite a contrast, both musically and choreographically, as cool jazz made way for the groove-based funk-punk of Liquid Liquid’s Bellhead with its strange bell-led, electro music presenting a stark contrast to the earlier tracks. Taken as a whole the four sections of this work are so unaligned as to seem like a mixed bag of four unconnected divertissements.

From Moultrie’s use of a great jazz trumpeter we moved to a legendary jazz saxophonist in Jamar Roberts’ Members Don’t Get Weary, which featured two blues tracks by the late John Coltrane, Dear Lord (recorded in 1965) and the lengthy Olé (1961). This is also Roberts’ first choreography for the company in which he is still dancing and his choice of Coltrane for the music is significant since both the saxophonist and Ailey were African Americans who had significant cultural impacts in 1960s America, against a backdrop of racial inequity.

Roberts brings that struggle into the present day in a work which opens with great impact from ten dancers, wearing wide-brimmed hats and dressed in various shades of blue, divided equally into a quintet dancing in harmony – stretched out arms and arched backs a common motif – and another standing motionless at the back, heads tilted with sombreros facing forwards, as if a line of Mexican workers taking a nap. When hats are discarded, Roberts develops his choreography through a series of group dances with a fluid male quartet of speed and unity being a highlight. His movement is expressive, varied and was performed with innate musicality.

AAADT's Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel in <i>Ella</i> © Teresa Wood
AAADT's Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel in Ella
© Teresa Wood

The ubiquitous final performance of Revelations was preceded by a brief work, choreographed for a gala benefit, by artistic director, Robert Battle, to a live concert recording of another great African American cultural icon, Ella Fitzgerald, utilising her virtuoso scat singing to the 40s jazz classic Air Mail Special. Battle matches the speed of Fitzgerald’s phrasing with lightning-fast movement, performed here with panache by Daniel Harder and Renaldo Maurice. There is an odd, but effective, comedy moment of three other dancers flitting quickly across the backdrop as if they have turned up on stage unexpectedly.

This performance of Revelations, Alvin Ailey’s signature work from 1960, which closes virtually every AAADT show, gave me goosebumps. It was as well performed as I have seen, with every one of the ten dance sequences matching the imperative set by these memorable traditional songs. It is easy to appreciate how the eight-year old Moultrie was so inspired.

****1