Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – an extraordinary and unique dance phenomenon

Their lithe bodies are testaments to the beauty of the human form and its ability to evoke often conflicting emotional responses. They are mesmerising as they move across the stage, creating geometric patterns through steps that are sometimes co-ordinated, at other times individual free movements. Their colourful costumes are a second skin, which shows the extraordinary power of muscle and sinew. Every turn, bend, and jump is charged with energy that can be both frenetic and restrained.

That’s the visceral response the performers of one of the world’s most popular modern dance companies, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, creates in the audience. During the opening of the company’s South African tour, at Monte Casino’s Teatro, the standing ovation lasted nearly ten minutes. Alvin Ailey founded the company in the 1950s in the U.S., for those who were excluded from the world of dance due to their race. It has since performed to an estimated 25 million people in 71 countries.

The art of modern dancing often doesn’t appeal to a wide audience, despite being accessible to anyone. Perhaps it’s seen as high-brow. However, the human body is an immensely powerful tool for telling a story, without using words. One does not need to know the technicalities of the steps to experience and understand the stories of love, hate, fear, courage, faith, oppression, freedom, and sex.

Ailey said, “Dance is for everybody. I believe that dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people”. And that’s exactly what the various pieces performed by this company achieves.  During its limited run in South Africa, the company will showcase some of its most famous works. Some interpretations of choreographers at various other famous companies, some works original.

Polish Pieces is a performance of Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen’s dazzling, high-energy creation, in which 12 dancers, six males and six females, dressed in bright costumes form shifting patterns set to vigorous and spirited string and piano concertos.

One of the highlights of the night was the original creation of the company’s current artist director, Robert Battle. Takademe is a solo in which the rhythms of Indian Kathak dance are abstracted, set to a score of incredible vocalised rhythms, a kind of nonsensical “speaking in tongues”. The movements of the male performer are fluid and full of humour as they mirror the pace of the vocals.

AAADT's Daniel Harder in Robert Battle's Takademe.  Photo by Pierre Wachholder (supplied).

AAADT’s Daniel Harder in Robert Battle’s Takademe. Photo by Pierre Wachholder (supplied).

Ronald K. Brown’s Grace is a blend of modern dance with West African idioms. The music and movements are a combination of spiritual actions set to hymns, while others are performed against the kind of Afro-pop dance music you may find in a club. The dance begins with male and female performers, some dressed in white, others in red. By the end, all are in white, perhaps signifying a kind of religious redemption, forgiveness, or purification.

Finally, Ailey’s signature creation, Revelations, is based on African-American spiritual hymns, and the path to “holy joy”. It is a powerful cultural story that depicts moments of historical importance for African-Americans during a time of segregation and struggle for racial equality. The music contains renditions of some famous tunes, such as Wade in the Water and Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.

The company will be performing 13 shows in Johannesburg at the Teatro at Monte Casino from 3 September to 13 September 2015. It will then perform seven shows at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre from 16 September to 20 September. Tickets are available through Computicket.

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