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Turbulent and Extraordinary

The late Alvin Ailey famously set his sights on creating “the kind of dance that could be done for the man on the streets, the people.” His successors at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have faithfully taken up this mantle, keeping approachability at the forefront of new company commissions. AAADT’s new 21st Century Creations bill, for example, hails the universality of hope, joy and pain, using mixtape music and dance hall moves to stoke a balmy familiarity. The emotions, and the dance conveying them, feel lucid and immediate, free from pretension. But while the performances are accessible, they’re hardly conventional.

Performance

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Four Four” / ”Unfold” / ”In a Sentimental Mood” / ”Are You in Your Feelings?”

Place

Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, September 14, 2023

Words

Sara Veale

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in “Are You in Your Feelings?” by Kyle Abraham. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

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Channelling the spirit of Ailey, who was known for his dynamic storytelling, particularly when it came to the histories of Black America, the dancers parlay the material into something turbulent and extraordinary. 

First up is “For Four,” a 2021 quartet from artistic director Robert Battle that unleashes a gust of bottled-up, pandemic-driven energy. Wheeling to a 4/4 jazz arrangement by Wynton Marsalis, the dancers burst forth in an explosion of shimmies and cha-chas, their heads bobbing like chickens. Swing moves mingle with sensuous slices of contemporary dance, producing lush pirouettes and full-body extensions accentuated by cocked, wagging fingers. Just a few minutes long, the piece is as glossy and rousing as a shot of bourbon, especially when the crew start snapping their sparkly suspenders.

A quick pause before another short, sweet offering from Battle: 2007’s “Unfold,” set to the central aria from Gustave Charpentier’s 1900 opera Louise, a fable of love and poverty in fin de siècle Paris. Ashley Mayeux delivers drama from the opening notes, wrenching herself into a powerful backbend while the lengths of a blood orange chiffon dress cascade around her. She keeps her fingers outstretched as she morphs from one statuesque pose into another, clawing at her lover (Jeroboam Bozeman) and the empty spaces he leaves behind. The pair clamber together in a slow, staggering display of desperation, their passion writ large in arms that scrape at the sky. Most of the duet had unfurled by the time I realised they still hadn’t faced each other directly, a superb touch of staging. Nothing matters outside of this private world they’ve engineered, and yet they can hardly bear to make eye contact—devastating.

Ghrai DeVore-Stokes and Chalvar Monteiro in Jamar Roberts's “In a Sentimental Mood.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Khalia Campbell and James Gilmer take on Jamar Roberts’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” a 2022 number with a velvety Southern gothic vibe. High-backed dining chairs and a feathery chandelier summon a dusty, rose-strewn parlour where an estranged couple reflects on their collapsed romance. The choreography is vivid and erratic, rebounding on its every swerve, a pendulum gone haywire. There’s a juicy friction to the partnering, Gilmer striding after Campbell only to rebuff her once they lock bodies. Even their softer moments hum with tension: with each tender touch of the forehead or wistful embrace, you wonder how and when the harmony will disintegrate.

Rafiq Bhatia’s score, a reworked Duke Ellington composition, amplifies the sense of contrast and collision, layering silky voices of the past over an electro current thrumming with eerie reverb. As the music intensifies, so does the dancing, curling wrists and thrusting chests collapsing into the panicked backbeat.

Most AAADT bills end with “Revelations,” Ailey’s 1960 love letter to the Black church, ensuring it continues its streak as the world’s most seen work of modern dance; but this one opts for a new ensemble piece from the contemporary choreographer Kyle Abraham. “Are You in Your Feelings?” celebrates hip-hop, soul and R&B as cornerstone influences on Black culture today, splicing together music from giants like Drake, Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill. Jiving in front of a gleaming neon swoop, a dozen dancers in technicolour tops dart between the many moods of this eclectic playlist, doling out balletic duets, sharp, slicing group routines and more.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Kyle Abraham's “Are You in Your Feelings?” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

It's a jumble of flavours and textures, some sitting more easily alongside their neighbours than others. There’s a slightly jarring ping-pong effect when, for example, the cast veers away from the serenading doo-wop tones of The Flamingos (echoed in smooth, swaying strides) and adopt an edgy, hunched body language to match the conversational swagger of Jazmine Sullivan. Soon a Latin guitar swoops in, sending them springing, and then we’re back for a taste of the late 90s, the women of the cast swapping their chic puff-sleeved silhouettes for a TLC-inspired sports bra and trackies look. There’s a lot to look at and a lot to love, but the choreography would benefit from fewer competing aesthetics, the dancers able to spend a little longer with each one. 

That said, there’s one vibe shift that hits hard precisely because it comes out of nowhere: a funky play on the viral Wednesday Addams dance. Seven women stare down a lone dude, fixing him with a bored look of superiority as they nonchalantly jive their hands and roll their shoulders. Most of the work’s group routines could use some tighter unison, but the individual dashes of flair in this one enhance rather than dilute it. Same goes for the finale, a pulsing concoction headed off with a commanding solo from Ashley Kaylynn Green, who gathers energy with her arms and thrusts it outwards, rallying us into her kinesphere. She takes her place at the head of a dance pyramid, leading the cast in a bumping, hypnotic march, but it’s all eyes on her as she pulses harder and dips lower than the phalanx in her wake. 

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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