Power, precision and presence. Ailey 2 showcases twelve dancers who wow with top-notch technical execution and incredibly infectious energy.
This exciting modern dance company is the younger sibling of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, so it is part of the renowned Ailey ‘family’ of training, performing and community outreach. The Ailey mission furthers the pioneering vision of the late dancer, choreographer and cultural leader Alvin Ailey; he united people of all races, ages and backgrounds through the universal language of dance, rooted in African American tradition. Ailey 2 bridges the gap between the studio and the stage for dancers at the beginning of their careers by giving them an opportunity to spend two to three years performing professionally, while continuing to hone their craft.
Current company members are aged between 19 and 27. Under the guidance of artistic director Francesca Harper – who took her first dance steps at the Ailey School, where her mother, Denise Jefferson, was director from 1984 to 2010 – they are excelling at demonstrating the awe-inspiring athleticism and artistry essential for individuals who want to make an impact on the next generation of dance.
The UK 2023 touring mixed bill features four works. At Milton Keynes Theatre, it opens with an excerpt from William Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure (created for Ballet Frankfurt in 1989). Next comes an excerpt from Francesca Harper’s Freedom Series (created for Ailey 2 in 2021). Then Robert Battle’s The Hunt (created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2001). Finally, as is characteristic of all Ailey offerings, the programme concludes with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (created for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1960).
It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of dance. The programme delivers an impressive amalgam of intrigue, intensity and introspection. There’s darkness and light on this journey, which ends with the joy life can reveal if you have faith.
The enthralling, energetic, central section of William Forsythe’s contemporary ballet, Enemy in the Figure, propels the Ailey 2 dancers across a bare stage with a bang. A restlessly rhythmic and repetitive (recorded) electronic score reverberates as twelve bodies – all of different heights and all dressed in black – rapidly move through relationships that abstractly explore isolation and connection. Individual dancers push the air that surrounds them away with slicing arms, splitting legs and spiralling turns. Those splaying limbs and revolving actions, as well as rolling hips on sashaying walks during more contemplative moments, make their fringed trousers flare. The lighting sporadically dims and brightens so that solos, duets and ensembles mysteriously emerge through shadows.
Orbs of bright white light appear to provide burdened souls with the vibrancy to shine in the excerpt from Francesca Harper’s Freedom Series. Eight dancers fluidly cross paths and tenderly interact to find the light within throughout this ethereal piece, which is accompanied by a medley of music – some with vocals and some without. A lone female wearing a sparkly silver dress (Maya Finman-Palmer was a delight on press night when making her debut in this role) digs deep to dazzle under a spotlight. Later, dancers lift each other and fluttering movements mimic wings taking flight. The suspense builds as even those guardian angel globes seem to become too much to carry.
These notions of struggle pave the way for the explosive impact of a furious fight to the finish in Robert Battle’s The Hunt. Originally choreographed for six male dancers, this exhilarating piece is being performed by an all-female cast for the first time during the Ailey 2 UK tour. Press night casting in Milton Keynes featured a quartet of female warriors (Kali Marie Oliver, Tamia Strickland, Jennifer M. Gerken and Maggy van den Heuvel) costumed in black sarongs with red underskirts and slashed red crop tops. The dancers begin this gripping, gladiatorial, girl-power offering with their heads down, hair loose and teeth bared. As soon as the movement kicks off, they are possessed. Locked into a ritualistic yet rebellious routine, they use angry posturing, rapid travelling, dramatic falls and combative floorwork to embody the primitive thrill of the chase.
Finally, enduring classic Revelations sees all twelve Ailey 2 dancers return to the stage to embrace their Ailey heritage. Gospel songs drive prayerful solos, soul-searching group numbers and a rocking finale. All twelve dancers compellingly embody individuals who are attempting to reconcile with their experiences and yearning for better days to come – they all shine in choreography that beautifully highlights different emotions, qualities and dance styles. Revelations really does have a little bit of everything to lift the human spirit. Balletic grace and the swinging rhythms of jazz and social dance. Spirituality, virtuosity and comedy. Simple yet striking stagecraft (flags and an umbrella are proudly held aloft during a procession, flowing scarves become rippling waves) and colourful costumes. Pain shimmies to the surface throughout, but tenacity, hope and joy prevail.
*Production photography by Nir Arieli (first photo: Alvin Ailey’s Revelations) and Erin Baiano (second photo: William Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure).
The dancers performing at Milton Keynes Theatre: Andrew Bryant, Spencer Everett, Jaryd Farcon, Maya Finman-Palmer, Patrick Gamble, Jennifer M. Gerken, Alfred L. Jordan II, Kiri Moore, Corinth Moulterie, Kali Marie Oliver, Tamia Strickland and Maggy van den Heuvel.
The programme at Milton Keynes Theatre:
Enemy in the Figure excerpt (18 minutes)
Interval (15 minutes)
Freedom Series excerpt (15 minutes) / pause / The Hunt (14 minutes)
Interval (15 minutes)
Revelations (36 minutes)
Running time: Approximately 1 hour 55 minutes, with two intervals.
Ailey 2 is touring nationwide thanks to support from Dance Consortium, which invites must-see international contemporary dance companies to visit venues across the UK. The regional theatres that are part of the consortium unite for the benefit of dance-loving and dance-learning audiences. Past Dance Consortium offerings have included tours by creative circus company The 7 Fingers and South African choreographer Dada Masilo.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.