Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

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It’s amazing what a smile and a shimmy can achieve. I’m not being flippant – the most endearing quality of this dance troupe is their obvious enjoyment in what they do, a quality all too rare in dance today. Cutting edge others may be, but odds on the performers look as if they’re having a seriously bad day. Not so the Ailey dancers, whose enthusiasm and sheer brio carry them through.

But in their first programme (of three) they pay a tribute to their founder, Mr AA himself, which does him a disservice – four examples of his work demonstrate an essentially narrow choreographic vocabulary. Ailey is at his weakest when “doing” classical ballet; “Meander”, the second section of The River, is sub-Balanchine off-pointe, and the fast Bournonville-style section in Night Creature merely highlights the dancers’ technical limitations. Three of the four pieces are set to Duke Ellington, and Ailey often fails to match the musical inventiveness with choreographic sophistication of his own. Night Creature is too much a cabaret number, all swivelling hips in flared pant-suits and reaching for the sky, and The River is an episodic evocation of something that struck me as anything but aquatic.

And yet, great performances shine out: Renée Robinson in the former and Linda Celeste Sims in Pas de Duke are both supremely natural artists who fix the audience with expressive eyes and a delightful playfulness, and while the men of the company are a little too muscular and too technically varied to be graceful, they invest their performances with an honesty and a vim that sweep all reservations aside. What does the trick is Ailey’s undisputed masterpiece Revelations, set to “African-American religious music”, in which Ailey shows a sophistication of creativity in a different league from that in his other pieces. The company performs their signature work with brilliance; technical demands are comfortably met, depths of emotion and meaning duly plumbed and the stage picture never less than striking. It is a life-affirming work that should be seen; it appears in both programmes 1 and 2.

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