Alvin Ailey at Sadler’s Wells review: scores that slap and dancers at the top of their game

Are You in Your Feelings? at Sadler’s Wells  (Paul Kolnik)
Are You in Your Feelings? at Sadler’s Wells (Paul Kolnik)

Every arts company posts a mission statement – art, community, blah – but few live their values with the blazing commitment of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The revered New York troupe, returning to London after four years, holds its place in the conversation about race, belief and community in America – and as the nation fractures, it seems ever more crucial.

Ailey was a jazz man, and the choreographers that followed him typically select scores that slap. Most recently, Are You In Your Feelings? has Kyle Abraham choose Drake, Lauren Hill and Kendrick Lamar. Under a beguiling lick of neon, it’s party time. The flirt is on: eyes lock, couples in raspberry and emerald glide together and apart. Preening guys smooth their hair and roll their shoulders; the women, devastatingly unimpressed, swipe the air to Erykah Badu’s I’ll Call U Back.

Abraham’s dancers lean into riffs, ingest the vocal rhythms. Connections mostly bob beneath the surface, while their moves can appear deceptively casual – dropping a pelvis, lifting a leg. Threading through is a combustive relationship between the ferociously watchable Ashley Kaylynn Green and Chalvar Monteiro, always seemingly on the verge of an explosive bust-up or incredible sex, or both. People-watching at its finest, it’s a squelchy, juicy piece of dance.

Robert Battle, artistic director since 2011, clearly has an eye for new commissions and versatile dancers at the top of their game. Two short works of his own feel slight, though For Four latches onto a rattling score by Wynton Marsalis, holding on tight through sharp lines and spiky knees and elbows.Abraham’s piece and Ailey’s signature Revelations (created in 1960 and still the stonking close to almost every show) both refuse simply to ride their alluring scores. The party vibe of Abraham’s playlist, the emotive tug of Ailey’s spirituals – each choreographer treats them as a conversation, a prompt for delicate, sophisticated movement.

By the time the aunties are unleashed in Revelations, joy is unconfined (Dario Calmese)
By the time the aunties are unleashed in Revelations, joy is unconfined (Dario Calmese)

And oh, I love Revelations. A richly swooping journey into exultation, inspired by Ailey’s own Southern childhood, it marries balletic grace to modern abstraction but with added urgency. Once again, the exceptional dancers make this feel like news. Rolling with intent through Wade in the Water, yearning for transcendence in Fix Me, Jesus, pursued by remorse in Sinner Man, the music pulses through them muscle-deep.

How does it feel to wash off a heavy world, to slough a burden? We find out when, towards the end, Ailey unleashes the aunties – ladies with wide bonnets and emphatic fans – and joy is unconfined. Mission accomplished.

Sadler’s Wells, to September 16;