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Can they dance like nobody else?

Posted on September 19, 2016

Alvin Ailey’s first company, established in 1958, consisted of seven black dancers and the intention of showcasing black culture. Over the years, as the troupe’s size and reputation continued to grow, it had an unmatched impact on dance in the US. Though predominantly African-American, the roster was integrated in 1964 and has included white and Asian artists ever since. The choreography was consistently integrated too, created by men of colour – Ailey himself, Donald McKayle, José Limón – but also by white men such as Lester Horton and Ted Shawn and women such as Anna Sokolow. Their vivid subjects emerged from their roots, recent past and vibrant present; in movement suffused with passion and purpose, the public saw tribal rituals, sultry seductions in honky-tonk bars, fistfights and heartbreak in the dark streets right outside.

Performers who might not have worked otherwise worked for Ailey. Judith Jamison, who succeeded him as the company’s director, stood roughly six feet tall and took the stage like a goddess. Strong technicians but never letter perfect, Dudley Williams and Clive Thompson drew sinners and warriors from their posture and eyes as well as their muscles. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the repertory and the forceful attack it demanded defined this company, and its artists revelled in taking chances; among them, I saw Lynn Seymour insinuate herself into Janis Joplin in Ailey’s Flowers, choreographed for her in 1971.

Of course, black culture, multi-racial troupes, pop music, anger and violence have all become part and parcel of the contemporary dance scene. Break dancing and hip hop have invaded theatrical choreography, and dancers of colour appear in classical ballet companies, not many but also not never. As dance has changed, so has the Ailey troupe, today called Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater.

It’s an established business now – note the registered trademark after his name – with a purpose-built home in Manhattan and a school of its own. The repertory no longer represents a unique perspective on human experience or even an unusual stylistic mix. Plays, operas, songs and movies frequently tackle the numerous facets of racial inequality with boldness and sensitivity, and slinky jazz moves sit side by side with abstract ballet on many stages. Ailey’s audience at Sadler’s Wells during its tour to the UK cheered the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, but remember, companies everywhere have acquired Wheeldon’s dances knowing that the public everywhere responds to them.

However, the repertory of this troupe was never its only attraction. Individually and collectively, the dancers built its enthusiastic following, even as some dropped away and others replaced them over the years. This time around, to my surprise, it seemed that nothing has changed more radically than the dancers. Where has the passion gone? Nobody put a foot wrong in the two programmes I saw, and these artists have it all over their predecessors when it comes to meticulous execution and polished technique. Their ballet training shines through in clear turnout and plunging penchés, but I waited in vain for a flash of spontenaity, even for the impression of spontenaity.

Concentrating on different vocabularies, Rennie Harris filled his Exodus with jive and pulsating spirituality, and Ronald K Brown wove African rhythms and an atmosphere of oppression into Four Corners. Yet the two works looked essentially like the same piece in different costumes. Both served up non-stop action at an unchanging pace and maintained a single rhythm throughout; both deployed the dancers interchangeably, so they blanked their faces and buried their personalities, phrasing identically to deliver their steps identically.

Ailey’s best-loved masterpiece, Revelations, is in danger of losing its soul if the emotions it embodies – tenderness, suffering and joy – don’t travel across the footlights. Respectful to a fault, the company presented it like a carefully worded lesson, revealing the shape of black experience without absorbing us into it.

The critical consensus has generally been glowing about these splendid performers, who are meeting the challenge of a widely varied repertory with skill and devotion. My question is not whether they can dance well. My question is whether they can dance like nobody else.

Pictured: Dancers of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photograph: ANDREW ECCLES.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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