Laura Freeman

Nothing sings and shimmies like Alvin Ailey

The first three acts may have been slack, but the exultant energy of the finale was electrifying

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Sadler’s Wells, until 14 September

Hit them with your best shot? Or save the best till last? Almost 30 years after Alvin Ailey’s death in 1989, his dance company still ends every night with Revelations, an autobiography in ballet and gospel music.  First danced in 1960, and presented at Olympic opening ceremonies and presidential inaugurations, Revelations remains an electrifying piece. Ailey’s gift was to borrow elements of African, Asian and Native American dance and set them to a score of traditional spirituals and gospel rock. On the strength of this bill — the second of three programmes the troupe is performing at Sadler’s Wells — his successors have yet to make anything that sings and shimmies with anything like Ailey’s inventive energy.

The first three acts are slack. The opener EN, choreographed by Jessica Lang and first performed in New York last year, is elegant enough. The beginning is something like a sun dance to a soundtrack of war drums and clicking, trilling typewriter ribbons. In their ivory outfits (shame about the putty gym knickers), the 13 dancers are played upon like piano keys. As they are struck and released it is as if God’s hand were practising chords. There is something mechanical, almost steampunk, to the choreography: legs tick like minute hands, female dancers spin like mobiles from their partner’s arms, each cog fits the next in the sequence. The climax sees the dancers turn the stage into something between a maypole and a mandala.

The Call, says choreographer Ronald K. Brown, was created as ‘a love letter to Mr Ailey’. It’s Strictly Ballroom meets New York speakeasy as a quintet in smooth suits and satin skirts meet to jitter and jive. The men roll hula-hoop hips, the women swish and swoon and sway. After the first few numbers, though, The Call becomes subdued and one-note. My mind started to drift towards home and Horlicks.

Juba, by Robert Battle, is a ragged, jagged scarecrow dance to a score of saucepan lids and cat-guts. The four dancers thump and stamp and beat the smalls of their backs. A  double-Nurofen number.

Does the company ever tire of Revelations? You’d never guess. At a time when so many contemporary dancers wear expressions of glassy modernist misery, Alvin Ailey’s company smile like they mean it. Revelations is a piece of exultant energy and ascendant joy. It received the sort of standing ovation and encore usually kept for the West End and Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The piece, an intertwining of African-American history and Ailey’s memories of his Texas childhood, opens with dancers in spice-rack colours. It would be wonderful to see this with a live choir. As it is, we make do with gospel on the speakers.

After the first slow, prayerful movement, the company comes on stage: southern belles with fans and flowered hats, happy-tapping chaps in tight trews and gold waistcoats. Together they flirt and flutter under a hot stage-cloth sun. The walking-on-water scene, with its white frocks and lace parasols, is particularly lovely. You feel cool and restored just watching the lace flounces lifted by the silk of the river. Sarah Daley-Perdomo and Jermaine Terry dance a trembling duet to ‘Fix Me, Jesus’ and Daniel Harder gives an extraordinary, levitating solo to ‘I Wanna Be Ready’.

Whether or not it’s true that the devil has the best tunes, he certainly has the best moves. The trio who dance ‘Sinner Man’ — Solomon Dumas, James Gilmer and Patrick Coker — are sensational.