Alexis Keir

When Ella met Alvin

I first saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Company during a visit to New York between Christmas and New Year in the mid-90s. I was entranced by the troupe and have never since missed a chance to see them on one of their infrequent visits to the UK. This September I made the journey back to Sadler’s Wells to see if the artistry of the dance company would still hold the same magic for me.

Founded in 1958 by Alvin Ailey, the Ailey Dance Company to me has always seemed a kind of artistic eighth wonder of the world: both for their excellent and imaginative storytelling and their celebration of the African American cultural experience – an experience which began with the songs of slaves in sun-drenched cotton fields, their servitude the legally prescribed foundation stone of a nation.

One of the reasons the company engage so profoundly with their audience is that we see, in the languidly elaborate on-stage choreography, a poetry which describes something of our own lives. Their standing leaps look effortless, though there is plenty of exertion on display as their bodies move to reflect ours: the strength and muscularity of a woman lifting an undisclosed heavy object; runaway men panting, gasping and falling into a conjoined heap; impossibly long arms creating tubular petal-like forms that spasmodically collapse.

Jacqueline Green in Jamar Roberts’ “Members Dont Get Weary”, photo by Paul Kolnik

Opening with choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Ounce of Faith”, the dancers swirl in vivid blue, green and yellow costumes to a jazz soundtrack mixed with afrobeat. The voice of an ex-pupil, reflecting on the memory of a childhood teacher, reverberates around the auditorium: “When someone has an ounce of faith in you, it can change the course of your life.” The words and the dance remind us that we soak in the sacrifices of generations who have come before us.

Next up, “Members Don’t Get Weary”, created by dancer-choreographer Jamar Roberts, is set to the music of John Coltrane. The piece takes its name from American jazz drummer Max Roach’s 1968 album; the “members” referred to are every single one of us, the suffering put-upon components of society, who live through and endure “the blues”. Field hands toil the heat-soaked earth under wide-brimmed hats, the dancers donning various uniforms to signify the regimented work. Quartets of male and female dancers move with almost military synchronicity, although it is through small irregularities in their movement that the symmetry of the dance feels perfectly natural. Finally, dressed in clothes of the hospital or domestic worker, the troupe come together to embrace, let go, then embrace once more, before releasing each other to find their own way.

It’s conjecture that Ella Fitzgerald ever did meet Alvin Ailey. She was born in Virginia in 1917 and Ailey in Texas in 1931. But her first public performance was meant to be as a dancer, and she was famous for her musical collaborations. “Ella” was first performed by the Ailey company to celebrate the centenary of her birth. In this highspeed comic romp, two Chaplinesque dancers vie not only with each other, back and forth across the stage at scattergun pace, but with the amazing wordplay of Fitzgerald as she scats through “Air Mail Special”. The dancers and Ella skim together along a river of absurdity, her voice a trumpet of wordless nearly-notes landing intermittently on lyric fragments: “Davy, Davy Crockett… King of the wild frontier”, “. . .chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, “. . .when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie. . .”. The dancers collapse with the final beat. You sense that their exhaustion isn’t part of the act.

Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel in Robert Battle’s Ella, photo by Christopher Duggan

The evening closes with a piece which captivated and warmed me that freezing New York winter two decades ago. So many people return to see the Ailey Company again and again because of the impact of experiencing, for the first time, their signature piece, “Revelations”. Rebirth, transgression, redemption: the dancers carry us through the baptismal waters, confess their sins and express their joy to us.

The dance company received their usual standing ovation for the final dance, “Rocka My Soul In The Bosom of Abraham”. In this exuberant hymn to salvation, parasolled women own the stage, parading their finery as men strut and preen like dandy cocks amongst their twirling bright yellow dresses. But for me, this year “Revelations” wasn’t the highlight of the evening. The dance company could rest on their laurels and know that people will still come time after time to see their showstopper, but they continue to take risks, to induct new generations of dancers and audiences and create works which speak to our times.

“Revelations” wasn’t flawless – a little of the vibrancy from previous performances I have seen was missing – but the excellence of the company’s performers shone throughout the show. The quality of their execution is rarely anything less than superb. Entering its seventh decade now, the company has survived and continued to grow by always drawing on new inspirations and merging them with the clarity of its founder’s dream.

“Members Don’t Get Weary”, choreography: Jamar Roberts, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, photo by Paul Kolnik

In 2007 the music scholar Jeff Chang wrote that hip-hop is conditioned by forms that emerged from the African diaspora, so “you can’t escape the blackness”. The same applies to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company. The central wellspring upon which the company draws is that of Black American heritage, pain and growth.

Alvin Ailey began the company with a small group of black dancers in 1958; it remains dedicated to preserving the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience, but for many years the dancers themselves have come from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds, performing regularly to diverse audiences.

The Alvin Ailey Dance Company draws people so strongly to see it and will continue to do so because of its ability to soulfully render the realities of life through movement and music: to show how dance can be dreamlike and visionary and yet still stay utterly faithful to the human experience.

Words by Alexis Keir.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Company (Programme C) at Sadler’s Wells from 4 – 14 September 2019.

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