Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Posted: September 12th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Sadler’s Wells

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Three Programs at Sadler’s Wells, September 4-14

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations (photo: ©Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated 60 years of life last year and the three programs the 33-strong company has brought to Sadler’s Wells in London focus on that celebration. The opening program is about Ailey himself, reflected either in Rennie Harris’s two-act Lazarus or represented in Ailey’s own early signature work, Revelations. Revelations is the ground, both figuratively and biographically, on which Ailey built his choreographic expression; he endowed it with vivid characterisation, joyous vitality and by anchoring it in traditional spirituals created a work that was politically and socially significant for its time. Revelations has rightly become synonymous with Ailey and it has pride of place at the close of each program. While the juxtaposition of Lazarus and Revelations neatly bookends the history of the Ailey company, there is a certain duplication in Harris’s narrative. For him to return to images of the slave trade in the first part is to repeat what Ailey achieved more evocatively through his association with spirituals in Revelations; in the second act, Harris simply substitutes hip hop for Ailey’s jazz rhythms as the contemporary expression of vigorous joy. There is also a distance between the two works that reflects on the treatment of African American culture over the past sixty years; it is the distance between Ailey’s trailblazing efforts to challenge racial discrimination in American society and the company’s current corporate identity. The year before he died, Ailey summed up his vision to dance critic Anna Kisselgoff: “I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that colour is not important.” Sixty years on, the question could well be asked how the company is serving this vision.

The question of legacy is one that any dance company has to face when it loses its founding choreographer, and modes of continuation differ widely. Alongside his own works, Ailey in his lifetime was keen to present the works of other choreographers of any race, so the continuation of a repertory system within the company is consistent with his direction. The problem is how to deal with his own repertoire without his vital intervention. When Merce Cunningham decided controversially not to leave his company to function without him, perhaps he did not to want his works to define him beyond his direct control. While at the time of Ailey’s death in 1989 the decision to protect the company’s legacy in its existing form was wise given the socio-political environment, the further away Ailey’s works are from his rigorous influence the less representative they are of his unique spirit. Perhaps this is why, but for Revelations, the present London repertoire is entirely the work of other choreographers. It’s as if the anniversary celebrations are less about Ailey than about the continuation of the company he created, one that on this showing appears to have swallowed its founder almost without trace.

In the second program, the company presents works by Jessica Lang, Ronald K. Brown, and company artistic director, Robert Battle. Lang’s EN, dressed in white like the Take Me To The Water section of Revelations, is the one work that doesn’t address the company’s inherent culture; it is an abstract work that shows off the company — especially Jacqueline Green and Jacquelin Harris — but is not specific to it. Brown describes his The Call as ‘a love letter to Mr. Ailey’; it reaches back into Ailey’s choreographic influences, is replete with quotes from his work, and ends in the circle of light with which Revelations begins. It falls somewhere between a tribute and a pastiche without managing to reach the heart of its inspiration. Juba, Battle’s first work for the company, was created in the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and arguably reflects that political climate in its frenetic dynamic. Battle calls his quartet a ‘modern day Rite of Spring’ and its folkloric rhythms and angularity derive almost certainly from Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring that presaged uncannily the devastation of the First World War. There is no sacrificial maiden here, however; in this kind of setting we are all victims.

Battle’s other work in London is Ella, a duet for two men that tries to match its choreographic gesture to the voice of Ella Fitzgerald singing Airmail Special. It’s a tall order and succeeds only partially; it’s a party piece that showcases the thrillingly intricate dynamics of its performers (Daniel Harder and Renaldo Maurice) but fails to capture the full range of Fitzgerald’s vocal pyrotechnics. 

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Ounce of Faith could also be a paean to Ailey in its celebration of the influence of a teacher in a child’s heart. Undoubtedly sincere, the work’s exuberance is mitigated by a superfluous spoken text. Anna Pavlova once remarked that if she could explain something in words she wouldn’t need to dance it. Moultrie’s text is clear but his choreography waffles. Jamar Roberts’ Members Don’t Get Weary is inspired by the recording of two liquid blues numbers by John Coltrane, Dear Lord and Olé. Roberts is a longstanding member of the Ailey company and his body instinctively understands Ailey’s response to music; he seems to arrive at his own choreography from the inside and his dancers relish the opportunity to embody it.   

And so to Revelations. It’s a work you can’t help but appreciate although after seeing it at the end of each program the appreciation gives way to a mildly cloying sense of familiarity. Much has been said of Ailey’s theatricality, his ability to draw an audience into his embrace, but when this emotional effect is pre-empted by a conscious desire to please its authenticity is undermined. For an audience, it’s the difference between being profoundly moved and being entertained.  

Birmingham Royal Ballet: Three Short Works

Posted: May 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Birmingham Royal Ballet: Three Short Works

Three Short Works, Birmingham Royal Ballet at Crescent Theatre, Birmingham. Friday May 4 matinée.

Voice over: Welcome to Out of the Box Solutions. The digital clock shows 09:00. Winston and Julia, the new recruits, arrive for their first day’s work in a claustrophobic office space peopled by a chorus of malevolent clerks at their computer terminals. Matthew Herbert’s layered, electronic soundtrack, The Mechanics of Destruction, adds an inspired element of dehumanism and Johnny Westall-Eyre has created a lighting plot worthy of the score, scanning bed and all. Through the door marches a vampire of a Boss (Samara Downs), sexual harassment on pointe, and leads the bespectacled Winston (Joseph Caley) by his tie, back through the door, into her office.

Before we get to the lascivious scene two, a note of explanation. What we are about to see is the original duet which forms the seed of this work. Choreographer and BRB dancer Kit Holder created the duet to a track by MistaBishi called Printer Jam, in a quiet, unguarded moment while recovering from an injury. The work then took on a life of its own, and after a few successful outings, BRB director David Bintley asked Holder to enlarge the work to twenty minutes for inclusion in the present program as 9‒5. Apart from some minor tweaks (according to Holder), the choreography of the duet remains the same; only the roles have changed. So scene two is effectively a hot, manipulative, raunchy duet, danced with convincing animality by the Boss and her new recruit.

The subsequent story line of Winston and Julia’s day from hell and final firing is not important; the action could be in real office time or it could be happening inside Winston’s head. What is important is that Holder has had a chance to develop his choreographic voice with some effective chorus work that is in turns amusing and oppressive, a soothing duet between Winston and Julia to William Byrd’s In Nomine, and some lively passages for both men and women. He also maintains integrity of mood throughout. The development of the narrative side is less convincing, with a tendency to caricature rather than character, but that may be because the original duet was not sufficiently defined itself. Printer Jam has not lost its original character by its transformation into a twenty-minute short work but neither has it gained particularly by its extension. Holder is the winner here, a few steps closer to being, as Bintley himself stated recently in The Stage, “at that place where he’s hopefully about to do something of significance.”

The winner in Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces is molo design, a Vancouver-based collaborative partnership of Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen who are responsible the chic, black, kraft paper décor that is subject to endless manipulation by the dancers as space dividers, stools, and assorted props. This is taking set design to an innovative ‒ and potentially lucrative ‒ level of product placement. Perhaps the black paper is too stark against Nicole Pearce’s beautiful pale washes of light; the opening form looks like a giant water filter set down incongruously in a desert. White paper may offer more luminous possibilities and a gentler contrast to the costumes of Elena Comendador. The dancers emerge gracefully from these kraft paper objects, swirl around them, disappear enigmatically into them, balance playfully on them, lie serenely beside them, fold them up and carry them effortlessly, cover each other lovingly with them, unfurl them musically, enter jauntily with them (with even a whiff of camp) and exit reverently with them. When the dancers are not manipulating the décor, and even while they are, Lang has created for them a series of dances ‒ an ensemble at each end and eight variations in between ‒ based loosely on ten of Edvard Grieg’s folk-inspired lyric pieces played admirably from the pit by Jonathan Higgins. There are some fine individual performances (Tzu-Chao Chou and Nao Sakuma stand out) and engaging ensemble work, but the spotlight is decidedly on molo design, who also supported this production.

During the second intermission, the jazz quartet (Simon Allen on saxophone, Dudley Phillips on double bass, Steve Lodder on piano and Nic France on drums) warms up the auditorium with the music of Dave Brubeck, setting the scene for David Bintley’s Take Five. The curtain rises to Brubeck’s classic of the same name and we see Peter Mumford’s stage divided into nine rectangles of light, like an elongated noughts-and-crosses board. Four boys weave to the piano rhythm while the girl (Carole-Anne Millar) picks out the melodic line of the saxophone. Here is a refreshing fusion of music and dance and the performers convey a sense of ease and enjoyment. Each boy in turn dances with the girl, though it is not until the third boy that contact is finally made. Robert Parker is in the swing of it and smiling, perhaps because he is giving his final performance* before becoming director of the Elmhurst Ballet School. (Seeing him for the first time dancing an extract from De Valois’ Job at a recent memorial service for Alexander Grant, I thought he was a student with a promising career. Just one week later he is, alas, retiring.) Millar is having fun too…until Parker leaves. A trio of girls follows in Three To Get Ready, a series of solos that have a deliciously naïve sense of humour, then a really joyous Flying Solo by Jamie Bond.

Elisha Willis is a girl on a journey in Two Step. She eyes the cool and energetic Parker but the two keep their distance, dancing gradually closer until he finally takes her hand. They work well together. A chorus of boys enters, clapping out the rhythm in Four Square. You can’t ignore the rhythm when you have to clap. The dance increases in difficulty and speed, with thrilling turns and virevoltes. The boys take a well-earned bow before a reprise of the opening in Double Take. The dancers let themselves go, building in intensity and energy, and the fun flows inexorably out into the auditorium. Parker goes for broke, while Willis is relatively understated, a reflection of the music itself. In the ensemble, the accents are right, the lifts work effortlessly, and music and dance come together irresistibly.

*correction. It was Robert Parker’s final performance in Birmingham. His final tour finishes on Saturday May 12 in Truro’s Hall for Cornwall