Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

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Alvin Ailey
by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey From the very first arm movement of ‘Night Creature’, choreographed by Alvin Ailey to the music of Duke Ellington, it is clear why the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has become a worldwide phenomenon. The dancers’ technique is flawless and the precision with which they perform every movement – particularly those expansive strong arm gestures so iconic to Ailey – allows the timeless choreography to shine. ‘Night Creature’ is a high energy, cheeky work with buckets of personality and a jazzy flavour, making it a perfect opening number, reflecting the audience’s own energy and excitement. Akua Noni Parker makes a mesmerizing and delightfully sassy lead, drawing the audience in and not letting them look away for a moment.

In complete contrast to the exuberance of ‘Night Creature’, ‘After the Rain’, is an exquisitely subtle pas de deux performed by husband and wife Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims that caused not a few eyes to well up with its emotional evocation of the journey into new life, hope and love. The choreography by Christopher Wheeldon is a study of the beauty of simplicity – slow sinuous extensions interspersed with quirky gestures and breathless lifts that delicately interpret the ethereal music of Avro Pärt. Wheeldon unashamedly utilises stillness throughout, with the inner tension of the dancers maintaining the spellbinding atmosphere in shapes that resemble impeccably carved statues. To talk about a partnership between these two would be misleading. There are not two parties here: on stage they are one fluid entity. Where one ends the other starts, and they breathe together and move together in a way that goes way beyond good timing.

In fact the entire company seems to move from the same heartbeat throughout the evening, most notably in ‘Exodus’, a powerful piece by Hip Hop choreographer Rennie Harris. This work not only showcases the incredible versatility of these dancers as they execute the fast footwork and isolations of a professional street crew, but it also enforces why the members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are considered cultural ambassadors to the world. That they continually push boundaries in dance is solidly proven in ‘Exodus’. It is the first narrative Hip Hop dance work I’ve seen that maintains the energy and streetwise “cool” synonymous with hip hop while at the same time being gut-wrenchingly moving. The choreography is outstanding, drawing you inexorably into agony and grief before pushing you into the energy of revolution, so much so that the audience was cheering and eventually on its feet before the piece had even ended.

It is hard to imagine anything being able to follow that, but as the curtain opened on the first of the tableaux from Ailey’s seminal work ‘Revelations’, any thoughts of what had come before were silenced. From their first breath the dancers seem determined to live up to the legacy of this masterpiece. They exude through every muscle the rollercoaster of emotions through which this piece journeys, and execute the steps with such confidence that you never once feel unsure of whether they’re going to land a turn or fall out of a balance. As to the music, costumes, choreography and lighting, there is no more that can be said that hasn’t already been said a thousand times about why ‘Revelations’ – and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a whole – has continued to captivate and exhilarate audiences for over 55 years. The highest compliment I can pay is to say it lives up to its iconic reputation.

This is a fantastic, revolutionary, unmissable programme performed by world class dancers, and we can only hope the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater decides to add Cape Town to its tours permanently.

Shirley-Anne Bezuidenhout

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs 16 to 20 September 2015 at the Artscape Theatre, Cape Town.

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