A single dancer, shadowy in white, spins on a cold barren stage to a discordant, melancholy piano. Other dancers join her in billowing garments – they spin and turn in their own space, co-existing but somehow never breaching her invisible threshold. Thus begins Memoria, the first of three performances by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, all created by their eponymous founder.
Memoria is a tribute to his friend Joyce Trisler. The first half is an angular, agonised lament. That is until the stage fills with additional dancers. Cast locally, they encircle the initial troupe to form a dishevelled barricade to the outside world. But then Keith Jarrett’s jazz piano assumes a jauntier air as the dance style softens and the costumes brighten. Shifting towards Ailey’s signature mischievous contemporary dance, it embodies all that he loved about his friend. The local dancers pour onto the stage, an array of fluorescent peacocks, for a riotous celebration of all that is good in life.
You could mistake The River for a homage to dance styles through the ages, and maybe it is. Ailey created this second work with Duke Ellington, who wrote his first symphonic score for the acclaimed choreographer as an allegory of birth, life, and rebirth. The dance starts with a cheeky pastiche of ballet, complete with flowing costumes and stately processions around the stage. As the music is infused with jazz, the hemlines get shorter and the long fluid lines created by the dancers become perkier. This is a full company performance featuring all 23 dancers, lit with beautiful precision that nicely evokes the ever-shifting patterns created by water. The mix of solo pieces, pairs, trios, and the ensemble make for a lyrical showcase that highlights the strength and elegance of these beautiful dancers.
Both programmes finish with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s iconic piece, Revelations. The work is a beautifully realised window into Black American history, told to an accompaniment of gospel songs. It brims with Ailey’s trademark elegant lines, gravity defying lifts, and cavalier cheeky insouciance. The disco-infused Sinner Man alone will make you want to leap from your seat and offer your soul to the next passing preacher man. If you’ve seen the company’s alternate programme, you might be tempted to sneak out in the interval but don’t: the second viewing’s almost more fun than the first.