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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 26 JULY 2009 — A tremendous reception was given to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — here for their fiftieth anniversary — at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris in July, and excitement was high in the auditorium even before the dancers arrived on stage. The company is greatly appreciated in France, where many dance-lovers remember the first time they saw this beautiful troupe in the 1960s and 70s in the courtyard of the Popes' Palace in Avignon or in a Paris theatre, the vision of these wonderful dancers, clad in red and swirling across the stage in their long, flamboyant, fluid dresses remaining with us all. A new generation has now taken over, and director Judith Jameson has been opening up the repertory to works by both American and European choreographers, all the while remaining faithful to the African-American heritage which gives the company its unique identity.

Alvin Ailey: Festa Barocca
Photo: Steve Vaccariello

All seats were sold out for the three contrasting programmes given over a three-week period, but whatever the choreography that these superbly gifted, classically trained dancers from the Alvin Ailey School interpret — and they now possess more than 150 ballets in their repertory — they seem to turn each piece into a showcase of invention and theatricality. Such was the case with the first work on offer, Mauro Bigonzetti’s joyful Festa Barocca. Created in 2008 and inspired by the Milanese painter Caravaggio, who was the first representative of the Baroque school of painting and who created canvases famous for their dramatic lighting effects and intense emotional content, the Italian choreographer has constructed a series of exhilarating ensembles, solos, and duets set to extracts of works by Handel.

The curtain rose on thirty dancers, with the women in long, shining dresses of ruby red, shimmering turquoise, yellow, amethyst, and orange, and the men in skirts to match. They all surged forward in waves, in a fast and complex choreography full of energy and passion, arms and hands crisscrossing in a frenzy of movement. Four men, rapid and powerful, came to the fore, giving place in turn to a third passage full of big, slow, graceful movements that showed off their lithe, supple, feline bodies to perfection. The whirling mass of these extraordinarily beautiful young dancers continued to captivate their audience even after the first half of the work, when, despite the musicality of the piece, the choreography itself lost its initial interest. 

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Photo: Andrew Eccles

Unfold, the all too brief six-minute pas de deux by Robert Battle which followed, is a lyrical rendering of the tenderness and love evoked in the famous aria "Depuis le jour ou je me suis donnée" from Gustave Charpentier’s opera, Louise . The interpretation, stunning, by Linda Celeste Sims and Clifton Brown (who are two exceptional dancers) was equaled only by the beauty of the recording by Leontyne Price.

It was, however, the emotionally charged Revelations, the company’s signature work since its creation by Ailey in 1960, which ended the evening on an even higher note. It was danced as though for the first time, which indeed could be said to be the case, for many of the young interpreters had only recently joined the company. With such mature artists as Guillermo Asca, Glenn Allen Sims and Rosalyn Deshauteurs leading the cast, each dancer gave their all, and the audience reacted accordingly, shouting, swaying, and clapping spontaneously in time to the music. Set to African-American religious spirituals, "the most splendid music on earth," according to Ailey, "full of faith and joy as well as hardship," the ballet contains some of his finest choreography.

Alvin Ailey: Revelations
Photo: Paul Kolnic

The first part of the work, Pilgrim of Sorrow , which includes the sublime pas de deux, "Fix me Jesus," was movingly interpreted by 22-year-old Constance Stamatiou, who joined the troupe just over a year ago. She was partnered by Amos J. Machanic Jr, one of the company’s leading dancers for the last thirteen years.

Take me to the Water includes the visually lovely sequence where two rolls of fluid, ice-blue fabric are laid across the stage to represent the water through which a couple must wade to be cleansed before being baptized under a great white umbrella. It was, however, Clifton Brown’s masterly, powerful performance in the challenging solo, "I Wanna Be Ready" which caused the audience to interrupt the ballet with a burst of applause. It was hard not to join in.

Alvin Ailey: Revelations
Photo: Andrew Eccles

The work then ends with the whole cast flinging themselves into the much-loved "yellow sequence", Move, Members, Move, with its grand finale, "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," which, as always, had the audience in a state of rapture. Ailey’s work is what the company is all about, and never has the company seemed in greater form, and the United States of America could have no finer cultural ambassador. 

Title image: Portrait of Alvin Ailey
Photo: Eric N. Hong

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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