Posted on October 2, 2019
In 1958, the choreographer Alvin Ailey combined seven black dancers and his urge to celebrate black culture in a new company called the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Integrated with white and Asian performers in 1964, it drew its repertoire from an equally multiracial collection of choreographers, including José Limón, Donald McKayle, Anna Sokolow and Ted Shawn. At least into the late 1970s, the dancers at the Ailey school studied classical ballet and Graham technique as integral elements of their training for modern works infused with African traditions and jazz, and live music accompanied the performances.
In fact, everything about this troupe was always vibrantly alive, from the dancers’ passion to the dances’ subject matter to the public’s enthusiasm. Though Ailey died 30 years ago, the company is thriving under its third artistic director, Robert Battle, as is Ailey’s decision to develop in it “a completely creative environment, full of colors and music of all nations.”
Returning to Sadler’s Wells for the first time since 2016, the company again displayed its characteristic polish and inexhaustible energy, particularly in the second programme’s trio of new pieces. Jessica Lang’s En mapped an engaging exploration of geometry in its fluid contrast of curves and straight lines. Ronald K Brown’s riveting quintet, The Call, traced a stylistic progression from relaxed formality to cool jazz to the lilting swing of West African rhythms. Even more exciting, four women hurled themselves through Battle’s Juba, his first work for this troupe, as if possessed, acknowledging the original Rite of Spring with contemporary shapes and truly terrifying violence.
On the other hand, Revelations looked like a painted relic, colourful, beautifully carved and thoroughly impersonal, and its rousing gospel finale seemed as calculated as a show-stopping number in a Broadway musical. Why has this landmark of cultural expression become letter perfect in execution but emotionally hollow? Is it because the dancers, like Broadway gypsies, must repeat it night after night? Has its mythical reputation and the recording of the accompanying spirituals – now slow and operatic – robbed it of theatrical juice?
For years the company put heart and soul into Revelations, and its ecstatic reception demanded the encore that is now apparently automatic. Brilliantly distilling joyous and desperate facets of black history, the dance can still move and delight you, but the spontaneous conflagration it once ignited, on stage and in the audience, has burned itself out.
Deborah Hay’s choreography sprang from the artistic experimentation of the 1960s, when she danced in New York with Merce Cunningham and the Judson Dance Theater, pioneers of new ways to approach movement. Curiously, her Figure a Sea, commissioned by Sweden’s Cullberg in 2015 and recently performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, also resembled a relic, this one of the groundbreaking era that inspired her.
From the very beginning, Hay has been trying to pin down the essential qualities of dance. She banished structure, drama and virtuosity from her work to focus on motion and rhythm. She has attempted to intensify the viewers’ sensitivity to the act of perceiving by assigning familiar, everyday movement to untrained performers, whom she treats as neutral elements in the choreography. By the late 1970s, according to the dance historian Sally Banes, “She… renounced her role as a choreographer, implying an egoless state in which the dance becomes a revelation.”
The sculptor Antony Gormley has claimed that his figures “aren’t pictures of something” but “something you have to make sense of… a collective image,” which could easily describe Figure a Sea. Seventeen dancers were moving when the auditorium opened and continued moving for an hour after the houselights dimmed, without expression or change of dynamic or much personal contact. Costume divided them into three groups that mingled frequently; Laurie Anderson’s gentle soundscape unfolded alongside their dancing without pushing or pulling it. Movement littered the stage like pick-up sticks – slow turns, angular arms, twitches, shrugs, pivots – delivered naturally, so you never saw a pointed foot or a stretched leg. Said to derive from Hay’s “questioning instructions,” some of it may have been improvised.
Since the 1960s the spirit of experimentation in dance has drifted from bodies to technology. Those who now want their choreography to function as philosophy take great pains to explain themselves; today’s public expects entertainment to arrive in quick fixes and provide quick gratification. Consequently, Figure a Sea left many at sea, waiting for answers, even guidance, that Hay has no interest in supplying.
Pictured: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations and EN. Photographs by Paul Kolnik.