On Tuesday, December 27th, I went with my good friend and former co-dancer Hannah (you might remember her from this) to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their 2016 Season performance held at New York City Center. The performance series rotated repertoire, including timeless pieces such as ‘Revelations’ choreographed by Ailey and premiered in 1960. The Tuesday performance included four works with the youngest choreography of the program and a beloved classic that I personally have only previously seen on film.
The show opened with ‘Four Corners’, choreographed by Ronald K. Brown in 2013. Music was a mixed score including offerings from Carl Hancock Rux, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Yacoub. Costumed by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya, the women wore calf-length dresses of various greens, blues, and purples with a turban of matching fabric. The men wore dark pants and tank tops. This large ensemble work began with a single male entering with a backwards walk, deep in plie, a contrast to the driving pulse of the music. From here, it was a steady climb of excitement, speed, and structure ending with the full cast performing a unison phrase done to each of the four corners of the stage. Most apparent in this piece was the sense of music within different parts of the body; fast, grounded footwork added drum-like rhythm while the chest undulated, the arms arced and sliced like the reverb of upright bass. The movement was music of the body, showcasing power and joy in moments such as the final canon with each dancer erupting in a tombe coupe jete entournant in attitude. Every dancer utilized strength and line but some had a greater sense of tension and spring that made each movement push and pull into the next with more fun and sense of dynamic. Soloist Rachael McLaren moved with not only the sense of surprise and fullness in the way she travelled, or sustained a swirling renverse, but with a delicacy of hand gesture, and generosity of port de bras that added a sense of feminine decorum and full use of the torso in an impressive non-stop solo, calling in the other dancers. This was a piece that revealed itself, in title and in effect, as time went on and ended at the precipice.
Next on the program was “Vespers’, choreographed in 1986 by Ulysses Dove (who I’ve mentioned as a favorite for this piece). I have only seen this on video before, and was extremely excited to see it live with the Ailey dancers. Striking a somber tone with conservative black dresses and devoid of outright facial expression, the piece somehow conveys a huge vocabulary of dance and human emotion with movement and music. The six Ailey women lived up to every technical challenge of this piece, and there are many; the speedy pirouettes into developpe a la second, the huge vertical jump on and off the chair, the unbelievably fast running, the long parallel releve balance held with focus on the chair of dancer Sarah Daley. The piece which is somehow tense, percussive, aggressive is somehow spiritual without sentimentality. The only way this is done successfully is with the intensity of effort, clarity of focus, and sense of relation to chair, light, and the community of dancers built on stage. There is no sense that the dancers are performing for the audience. Rather, it seems we are peeking in on a vignette of their lives, that they lived before the curtain rose and continue to exist after the piece ends, all six lined up, standing in front of their chairs, facing stage right.
As much as I was looking to be dazzled by the dancing alone, I was surprised by the lingering effect this piece has had on me personally. The amount of energy lent by these six women does not vanish from the environment when the lights go out but continues to exist, unseen but fully felt, something like that of faith.
Third in the program was ‘The Hunt’, choreographed in 2001 by current Ailey Artistic Director, Robert Battle. The six male dancers, bare-chested in dark skirts with bright red lining, move with and against each other, sometimes dragging one another along the ground and other times, circling together, slapping hands, even travelling with arms held as if in a waltz. It is unclear in this piece whether this is a tribe hunting something outside together, or if they are hunting and challenging each other. Whereas in real hunting, there is time to observe, lie in wait, and then strike, Battle’s ‘Hunt’ is always in attack mode and even to the final moment it is unclear who is going to win. The context feels as animalistic and historic as it is relevant and contemporary in the current climate. This is a work that showcases the physical prowess of the Ailey men, the roar of exertion and how quickly one movement can overtake an opponent and throw the balance of power.
Closing the show was ‘Odetta’, choreographed in 2014 by Matthew Rushing. Unlike other pieces, this was the most theatrical offering, with the sense they were telling the audience a story with a clear beginning, ending, each with a sense of character. Music ranged from Bob Dylan, to recorded interview with Odetta F. Gordon, Henry Belafonte, text from Marianne Williamson’s book ‘A Return to Love’, and familiar hymns like ‘This Little Light of Mine’. The music served to weave a tale, informing the audience either on who was dancing or why. Selections ranged from using the full company, duets of men and women, to solo and were as various in tone as they were in costume and score. Props that could be arranged or taken apart to form benches or walls added to an individuality of setting in each selection. ‘Cool Water’, danced by Sarah Daley and Jermaine Terry was romantic and ethereal, danced on top of the sets as if they were a floating dock. ‘There’s a Hole in the Bucket’ danced by Rachel McLaren and Yannick Lebrun was humorous, gestural in expression to the lyrics. ‘Glory Glory’ danced by Megan Jakel was spirited and uplifting while Kanji Sengawa in ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ had the appurtenance of suspended helplessness. Each used masterful dancing in beautiful communicative choreography to convey their separate qualities; a smooth sustained promenade from Sengawa, the comedic goofiness of Lebrun to McLaren’s practical sternness, the flawless partnering of Daly and Terry. Especially memorable moments came from dancers Hope Boykin in ‘Motherless Children’ and Renaldo Maurice in ‘John Henry’. Boykin was fearless in her use of the sets, as if the added height during a beautifully extended layout off the platform didn’t faze her at all making it only more impressive and exciting. Maurice had several dazzling moments within the dancing that seemed unplanned in the choreography, a balance held just that one extra second or that extra rotation in an a la second turn ending without a sense of gravity in obvious earthly landing. This is the kind of dancing that happens by chance when the performer is in such complete control of their technique that they are able to abandon themselves to possibility, surpassing expectation of the step. This is the distinction of doing a step and really bringing it to life. It is the kind of dancing associated with and expected from this company, and the reason why their performances have resonance.
The movement of the human body is always driven by intention, creating the distinction from inanimate object or artifact. Dance becomes merely moving objects when it is no longer done with something the human spectator can relate to; power, energy, emotion, or intention. This creates the duality between body and spirit, as if they’re on opposite ends of a spectrum. Each piece in the program showcased the finest physical dancing with the most human of intention.
After many performances, I leave thinking about something a dancer did, a high extension for example, that made me want to be like them. Incredible though these dancers and the choreography was, I did not leave thinking about how to become more like them. Rather, I left with a sense of positivity and energy, as if I had just seen a little of myself up there with them in a shared experience. As dancers, educators, choreographers, spectators, we are all told so often to consider the line between what is entertaining and what is truly inspiring. This performance has finally answered this question for me.