Review: Ailey 2, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, September 22

Review: Ailey 2, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, September 22

By Joy McKay. Image: Ailey 2 in Francesca Harper’s Freedom Series. Photo by Erin Baiano.

Alvin Ailey was an American dancer and choreographer who grew up in the rural South under the reign of racism and segregation. He founded his American Dance Theatre in 1958 to carry out a vision of a company dedicated to “enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience.”

Ailey 2 (formerly the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble) was founded in 1969 and features younger upcoming dancers full of youth, energy, and creativity. The Mayflower theatre is one of 12 member theatres of Dance Consortium, an organisation whose purpose is to offer opportunities to young dancers and enable the best contemporary dance from across the world to tour to local audiences across the UK. As part of this consortium, they are privileged to be able to host Ailey 2 for a very limited run. 

The evening is a showcase of four pieces,comprising of two excerpts and two short stand-alone pieces. It opens with Enemy in the Figure (excerpt) a 1989 work choreographed by William Forsythe with a score by Thom Willems. In this the simple genderless costumes, also designed by Forsythe, give the feeling of uniform and the percussive, industrial sound of Willem’s music combine to give the impression of workers in a factory. The urgency and repetition of movement from the company heighten this effect and complimented with the radical lighting design of Ethan Saiewitz I felt I was watching workers in a sinister forge, perhaps something Dante could have imagined. It was a somewhat disturbing but physically impressive start for these young dancers. 

Ailey 2 in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Freedom Series (excerpt) is the second part of the repertoire and is from a 2021 piece choreographed by Francesca Harper. It comprises of four vignettes of which the second stood out to me. It is performed to ‘Little Fly’ by Esperanza Spalding, which she composed around the William Blake poem The Fly. As the sound of her double bass starts a single dancer takes centre stage in a dress made of mirrors designed by Elias Gurrola, and once Spalding starts to sing I am transported to a Jazz club in the 1920s, the dancer could be a contemporary of Josephine Baker in that moment. The lighting by Abby May compliments the mirrored dress, a shining star of her stage. She is joined by a second dancer holding a lit globe, adding to feeling that I am in the 20s, an art deco lamp come to life. 

The Hunt is the first of the two short self-contained pieces choreographed in 2001 by Robert Battle. The multiple drumming of the music from Les Tambours du Bronx is reminiscent of a Taiko performance when paired with the costumes designed by Mia McSwain which have the length and volume of Japanese Hakama, hinting at Battle’s inspiration coming from Martial Arts. This work is performed by an all-male cast juxtapositioning the relationship between men in competitive sports and the thrill of the hunt. This is visceral, powerful, and very masculine, a distinct contrast to the grace and femininity of work which preceded it. During their stay in the UK the female members of Ailey 2 have performed this piece, something I would be very intrigued to see. 

The show culminates with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. It features a score of traditional African-American spirituals and is set across three movements; “Pilgrim of Sorrow” depicts slavery and the inability to reach freedom, the dancers are often floor bound, dressed in earth colours whilst using their arms to reach out of their bondage. “Take me to the Water” depicts baptismal joy whilst remembering the recent reality of riverbank escapes of the enslaved, using blue silks to represent the water whilst a priest blesses a couple, all dressed in white as a sign of purity.  The movement is now happening more at mid-level as the people rise, emancipated but still bound by segregation. The final movement is “Move, Members, Move” a choral church celebration climaxing joyously in ‘Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham’ as couples, now dressed gaily in yellow, the women with bonnets and fans to show they are in their ‘Sunday Best’. The dancers are now completely upright, dancing in unison, together in happiness and freedom. The final part of the performance is repeated, in an encore of sorts, to allow the audience to join in. We stood in order to dance and clap, sharing the celebration with those on stage.

Revelations was first performed in 1960, four years before the civil rights act was passed in the US. The first movement represented the shocking past of Ailey’s family and community as slaves, the second reflects Ailey’s experiences of Texas as a young black man raised in the church, still under the Jim Crow laws. I hope that the third was a vision of hope, that he could see equality in his future. In 2014 Ailey posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his contributions and commitment to civil rights and dance in America.

Ailey 2 in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Nir Arieli

The evening was one of contrast with music from 1730 to the 21st Century, classical, traditional, percussive, jazz, and industrial the choreography also reflected that range.  I’d recommend this show to lovers of contemporary dance who want a glimpse at what we have in store from the latest talent but also to those who haven’t experienced live dance before. These four short pieces, interspersed with two intervals make the performances very accessible enabling this showcase to offer snippets of what different types of performances can offer. 

You can catch the company of Ailey 2 at The Mayflower tonight before they continue on their tour of the other member theatres of the Dance Consortium.  The consortium will also be bringing the Brazilian São Paulo Dance Company to The Mayflower in February next year, the perfect Valentine’s day date perhaps?


Tickets for Ailey 2 are on sale at or 02380 711811.

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