Judith Schrut reviews Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, currently on its 65th Anniversary Tour, at Sadlers Wells Theatre, London and 12 venues across the UK, through 28 October.
Alvin Ailey started life as a poor black boy in America’s Jim Crow South during the Great Depression. As he worked alongside his teen-aged single mother while she picked cotton in the fields or worked in domestic kitchens, he could not possibly have imagined that he would grow up to be one of the most famous dancers and choreographers of the 20th century.
In his teens, Ailey moved with his mother to Los Angeles. Here was a very different world. He was introduced to and smitten by the vibrant West Coast cultural scene, especially by dance. He started taking dance classes, which changed his life.
Jump to 1958 when Ailey, aged just 27, and his small company of all black dancers performed for the first time at New York’s 19th Street YMCA. They set the stage alight and brought a jaw-dropped audience to its feet. His dancers became the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey (1931-1989) became a renowned modern dance choreographer, a trailblazing pioneer in portraying the Black American experience through dance.
Sixty five years on from that groundbreaking show, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is celebrating its ‘blue sapphire’ anniversary with a world tour, its first since the Covid lockdown.
Starting at the Edinburgh Festival, followed by London, the company is dazzling audiences at a dozen venues across the UK, showcasing six decades of classic and new works. These include Pas de Duke, a modern dance classic originally created for its former stars Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov to Duke Ellington’s jazz score, and Revelations, Ailey’s signature piece of hope, redemption and joy, born from what he called “blood memories”. It’s a gorgeous, uplifting tribute to his African-American heritage and is the most widely seen modern dance work in the world.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater grew out of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was one of the first dance companies to actively welcome dancers of all races and backgrounds. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy chose Ailey and company for his first international cultural tour. Ailey’s Revelations opened the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He danced for LBJ in the White House, received many prestigious grants and established the Ailey School. These are but a handful of Ailey’s awards, accolades and prestigious performances.
I first saw the company many years ago at Sadlers Wells. I was a keen dance fan but penny-pinching student, so queued for hours to squeeze into a 30p seat in the ‘gods’. The performance was unforgettable.
It’s an entirely different universe now, but as I cozied into my deliciously comfortable seat for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 2023 opening night at Sadlers Wells, I could see that the company was every bit as stunning as I remembered.
As with almost every performance since 1960, the company closed with Revelations, Ailey’s masterpiece that never fails to inspire, chill, thrill and bring audiences far and wide to a standing ovation. It has be said that no Revelations performer can ever equal the astonishing Judith Jamison, Ailey’s statuesque shining star for 30 years and who went on to be the company’s artistic director for 22 more. But Revelations was still…a revelation.
Despite his fame and creative genius, Ailey’s life was never easy. There was the harsh childhood that never quite left him. There was racism and racial violence, mental breakdowns, drug addiction. There was his double life as a closeted gay man in an era when homosexuality was widely viewed as an illness and/or a crime.
Tragically, Ailey died of AIDS in 1989, aged just 58 and at the height of his creative powers and renown. Over 4,500 mourners attended his funeral, including then-President George Bush, New York Mayor David Dinkins, lifelong friend Maya Angelou and Ailey’s beloved mother Lulu. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Ailey a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, for his contributions and commitments to civil rights and dance in America.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Ailey II, 65th Anniversary Tour
Opened in Edinburgh and Sadlers Wells, London; now touring venues across the UK until 28 October 2023
Further information here: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre/Ailey II UK Tour 2023
View Alvin Ailey’s thrilling Revelations on You Tube here:
Images courtesy Sadlers Wells Press Office and AAADT, photo credits as above. With special thanks to Freddie Todd Fordham.