By BRUCE DENNILL
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: South Africa 2015 / Artistic Director: Robert Battle / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
Being a household name around the world is a mixed blessing in some ways. Alvin Ailey is one of the few individuals involved in contemporary dance in the last half a century to have some sort of a following almost everywhere, which means that when the company he founded, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, arrives for a run at a new venue, audiences feel that missing out on performances is akin to a social gaffe.
On the other hand, that profile and history places a consistently high level of pressure on the company’s dancers and choreographers. Many South African fans have mentioned that the works the company presented on this tour are dated, and indeed three-quarters of the line-up was choreographed in the Nineties, with Ailey’s signature work Revelations having been created in 1960. It must be noted, however, that many of those criticisms came from individuals who’d enjoyed the luxury of seeing the company in action before and may have been hoping to expand their experience.
For first-timers and the less cynical, though, the line-up of Polish Pieces (choreographed by Hans van Manen), Takademe (by Robert Battle), Grace (by Ronald K Brown) and Revelations was both bracing and beautiful.
Polish Pieces is characterised by both brightly coloured costumes and relatively simple movements. That’s not to say that what the 12 dancers onstage are involved in is easy, but that each separate movement is uncomplicated. Where the skill is evident is in the syncopation of the those movements by the cast and the discipline needed to keep their collective timing synched.
Takademe is very different, a solo by the cheerfully hard-working Michael Francis McBride that requires focus, quick reaction times and an enormous amount of energy, with more or less every beat of the quirky soundtrack requiring a reaction from the dancer.
After the first of two intermissions – the performance does feel rather strung out as a result – Grace adds scale and muscle to the programme. It’s spear-headed by the impressive Jacqueline Green who, along with Glenn Allen Sims, has immense stage presence, though the whole company – Akua Noni Parker and Yannick Lebrun also stand out – keep the momentum going effortlessly aided (in visual terms) by starkly elegant white and red costumes. The look of each piece has obviously been carefully thought through in each case – unsurprisingly, given that dance is such a visual medium – and the costume designers deserve higher billing than they receive.
The closing Revelations pulsates with wonderful traditional gospel music, with the best pieces – Wade In The Water and Rocka My Soul In The Bosom Of Abraham – accompanied by the most appealing choreography. The latter is repeated as an encore, and though it is perhaps the simplest piece in the whole production to perform, the elegant costumes – the women in long dresses; the men in slacks and waistcoats – it lifts the spirits of the audience, aided by a handful of key changes in the melody of the song.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater offers nothing revolutionary, but they do what they do extremely well and with plenty of class. There may be a worthwhile lesson in that for less celebrated companies who believe that there’s extra appeal in adding endless detail to their work.
A final aside: each piece in this line-up was developed thanks to funding from different arts councils, donors and endowments. The South African model usually involves companies trying to source huge chunks of cash to bankroll their entire company’s expenses. What’s suggested here is that getting smaller amounts of money and using them to put together and perform specific works in a repertoire – with the funders receiving recognition each time – may be a better idea.