Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and Touring
Over the past few years, thanks to the enthusiasm of the late Peter Sarah under whose management the theatre became a member of the Dance Consortium, Newcastle's Theatre Royal has built up a large audience for contemporary dance. Recently companies such as Nederlands Dans Theater 2, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and the Dance Theater of Harlem have had tremendous welcomes, but none, perhaps, have been so rapturously received as the Alvin Ailey company. Tonight's audience applauded so long and loud that even the company members looked stunned at their reception.
And well deserved it was, too. The four very contrasting pieces showed the company at its best and the talent and commitment of the dancer shone through.
Love Stories, choreographed by Judith Jamison, Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, and danced to the music of Stevie Wonder, was, in spite of its title, probably the most "abstract" of the four, integrating a number of different styles and basing the piece around the idea of dancers rehearsing in a limited space, with the excitement increasing as each one brings something new to the mix. It's a reflection, indeed, of the way in which Alvin Ailey himself worked and really got the audience going.
The second piece, Solo (the only one choreographed by a European, Hans van Manen) is suffused with humour. Danced to a Bach Violin Suite, it is a solo for three men, one taking over from another as the complexities of the music develop, and it is in these transitions that the humour arises. There is a sense of "This is getting too difficult for me. You take over!" or perhaps, at times, "This is getting too difficult for you. I'll take over!" The physicality is extraordinary and the three dancers - Clifford Brown, Jamar Roberts and Matthew Rushing - really push themselves to the limit.
The third piece, Shining Star, choreographed by David Parsons and danced to the music of Earth, Wind and Fire, was a late replacement for Ulysses Dove's Vespers, the change being due, we are told, to technical difficulties. But it was certainly no disappointment. It's a joyous celebration of love which opens with a scene reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever but with dancing which makes John Travolta's efforts look like this reviewer staggering his way around the dance floor trying to avoid damaging his partner's feet! It left the audience... well, "gobsmacked" is probably the word which best describes their reaction.
The final piece, and a fitting finale to the evening, was Relevations, one of Ailey's own pieces which he made in 1960 at the age of 29. It is not only danced to but is actually inspired by black spirituals and gospel songs. And it isn't only the songs themselves: some of the scenes (for such they are) are clearly inspired by the traditional church picnics which formed a major part of life for both black and white Americans.
It moves from consciousness of one's own lack of worth ("I Been 'Buked"), through hope ("Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel"), to a plea for help ("Fix Me, Jesus"), to baptism ("Wade in the Water"), to the desire to live a good life ("I Wanna Be Ready"), to the rejection of sin ("Sinner Man") and, eventually, culminates in rejoicing ("Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham"). By which time the audience was ecstatic!
Sometimes contemporary dance can be rather impenetrable, a bit esoteric: not this. As the critic for Newcastle's enetertainment magazine "The Crack" said as we left the theatre, this was "generous": it embraced the audience rather than performed for them. It was a very happy and excited audience which walked off down Grey Street after this show!
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the Theatre Royal on 28th September, then moves to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 30th September and 1st October, ending its tour at the Lowry, Salford Quays, on 4th and 5th October.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan