Lazarus / Revelations – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Programme A

Choreography Rennie Harris / Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Company
Sadler’s Wells

The first of three programmes that the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Company brings to Sadler’s Wells is all about its founder Ailey, who formed the company in 1958 and died far too soon in 1989 aged only fifty-eight. Born in Texas, he carried the rural south with him in his creations, the most memorable being his Revelations, now performed at the end of each show.

I can tell you it does not pall after many viewings. It always bring the house down, people on to their feet, clapping, swaying to its enslaving and uplifting rhythms. And to cap it all, they do a reprise at curtain call. What more could paying punters want? The music choices are great, the dancers are great, the ambience involving.

I saw the company last in 2010, having missed their visit in 2016, and am I making up for it—three shows with an interesting range of work over ten days—I couldn't be more delighted.

A biblical evening tonight: Lazarus and Revelations… an evocation of the deep South and its evangelical, gospel spiritual evolution, its prayers for freedom and hope in the human condition. Rennie Harris brings his North Philadelphia street dance roots to Lazarus (“inspired by the life and legacy of the company’s founder”), raising Ailey (his voice heard in voiceover) from the dead.

To a soundscape mix of voices, coughing, harmonica playing, barking dogs, heartbeats, heavy bass beats, a cold wind blows, a cinematic score (music and sound Darrin Ross) on a penumbral stage—the emotional darkness of the soul, of the African-American experience—an episodic tale unfolds in two acts. Dark figures cross a foreboding landscape, “a dark place”, “a damp place”. “I want to go home, I want to self-destruct, I suffer from survivor’s guilt.”

Bodies drag themselves across the stage, women weep, it’s a place where death awaits. Choreography is floor-based vernacular responding to gravity’s pull, to a solo voice singing a poignant gospel song. This is the displaced black diaspora in an unwelcome land, grief and shadows on the wall (lighting James Clotfelter), “motherless children a long way from home”.

Songs provide the narrative’s stepping stones, the winds of history, its rattle of war, and its haunting poetry, hands both the harvest and the harvesting slaves. But that’s the past, act two after the interval reveals a different era in its fast street footwork, lights up, rosy light, this is their home. “Freedom comes”. My companion sees the paintings of Ernie Barnes (“Sugar Shack”) and Aaron Douglas. They are the risen from the dead, hallelujah. Nina Simone sings “a new life for me”.

Assertive, fourteen dancers in ecstatic joyful booty-shaking moves dance the affirmative—“I’m feeling good”. Men and women do dance battle, and it is both a plea to stop the killing and a manifesto—all are beautiful, show respect and heal.

Invidious to pick out dancers, all are superb, and it’s difficult to put names to faces in the gloom, but I can’t take my eyes off tall lithe Jeroboam Bozeman (I think), rippling body electric, long arms flowing, commanding the stage.

Hard to believe Revelations dates from 1960—thirty-five minutes flash by like five, swept away by the flock of birds in flight and the church flock parade of antebellum ladies with their hats, parasols and stools, from which to scold their waist-coated men in their Sunday best. Ten spirituals tell the story, from “Fix Me, Jesus” to “Wade in the Water” to “I Wanna Be Ready” (a marvellous male solo) to “Sinner Man” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”.

Each song is a concert number and is applauded as such. Cheers and whistles greet some. Eighteen dancers fill the stage for the last number, and are our souls rocked! Ailey lives on: his company celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. Blues in the night and gospels to drive away the demons—emotional, uniting, a preacher’s dream.

Reviewer: Vera Liber