A Canadian company used to have a ballet in its repertoire called What to do till the Messiah Comes, and I think planning programmes for the Alvin Ailey American Dance company must sometimes feel like What to do till Revelations Starts. They have a huge back catalogue to draw on - director Judith Jamison appeared in 75 ballets in her dancing days with the company - but choosing pieces from them, and finding new works, that will stand up to what is possibly the most popular ballet ever written must take a lot of thought.
Jamison tried two different approaches for the company's first London appearance in far too many years. On opening night, she used pieces recently made for the company: Ronald K. Brown's Grace and Alonzo King's Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Both choreographers are well known in the States, but are hardly more than names over here, and what must be one of the most unhelpful programmes I've ever seen told us absolutely nothing about either them or their works. Grace is based on the choreographer's belief that people "are living their lives without acknowledging the 'grace' that surrounds their individual existences", so I take it that the figures in white represent the spiritual side of life, and those in red are the unheeding ones. They're contrasted also by their music and their choreography, but eventually the Reds are presumably converted as they change into white costumes and forsake their African and rock music for the slow Duke Ellington number that introduced the Whites. I found the fast, loud middle sections tedious, but they were evidently much to the taste of many of the younger audience. Alonzo King uses a much more conventional modern dance style and shows off the technique and power of the dancers.
The second programme consisted entirely of works made during Ailey's lifetime, and included one of his own pieces: Pas de Duke, set to more Ellington music, and originally made for Jamison herself and Baryshnikov. Matthew Rushing, one of the company's most-featured men, had the challenge of following the great classical dancer: in other works during the week he looked superb, but this piece needs a star quality to put it over, which he doesn't - perhaps doesn't choose to - show. Jamison's own Divining, her best known work, opened the programme. It has a strong sense of place and deals with a nomadic tribe searching for, and finding, a particular space - perhaps to enact some necessary rite. It has an important role for their leader - originally made for a woman, it was danced here with quite extraordinary controlled technique by Jeffrey Gerodias (who recently won a Benois de la Danse prize in Russia). The moment where he leans into a penchee arabesque, with his arm slowly circling, had an astonishing potency. Bad Blood by Ulysses Dove (once a dancer in the Ailey company himself) is an athletic piece full of striking lifts, throws and catches - again, excellently performed - but I found the whole less than the sum of the individual episodes, and there were overtones of misogyny in places which I didn't like at all.
So far as I'm concerned Revelations is pure joy. Maybe it's done with slightly less finesse than when I first saw it, and a couple of the sections had better performances on one night than on the other, but none of that detracts from the overall effect. The final number has the audience on its feet shouting for more - which, happily, we got; but some of the other, quieter numbers have an appeal just as deep. Most memorable for me is the perfect simplicity of 'I Wanna be Ready': if this isn't genius, it's very close.