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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

New York City Center, NYC
Dec. 1, 2010–Jan. 2, 2011
Performances reviewed: Dec. 16, 21


The ticket reads, “Robert Battle’s First Season,” and if you still have yours, hang onto it. Decades later, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is still going strong, 2011 will be recalled as the year when even the warm, loyal City Center audience found new surprise and reward in the company’s offerings, the season when even jaded critics were forced to sit up and take notice.

Ailey’s new artistic director has some crafty curatorial ways. Let’s count a few, based on the repertoire of two evenings I attended.

Neither Joyce Trisler’s Journey (1958), Alvin Ailey’s Streams (1981) nor the first Paul Taylor work to grace an Ailey season, Arden Court (1970), represents a rose of the freshest bloom today. However, by programming these pieces, Battle grounded the company in classic modern dance, reassuring his audience that matters of elegant line, technical power, humanity, and wit will not be devalued as the troupe pushes into a new era.

The solo Journey, restaged by Diane Grumet and featuring a live performance of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” benefits from the charisma of Linda Celeste Sims, whose arms, draped in her frosty white tunic, look capable of reaching beyond the stars. Her subtle twists and swirls, her deep backbend, and the way her feet paw a seemingly gelatinous atmosphere suggest a process of gentle, if persistent, effort.

 

Alvin Ailey's Streams.


Streams earns its highlight in Ailey history as the choreographer’s first plotless dance, one whose shape and pacing feel a little obvious and stilted now because, I suspect, Ailey was caught in an uncomfortable place midway between representation and abstraction. Its shallows and deep waters, indicated by sectional changes in movement dynamics and color scheme, are meant to suggest currents of emotion in the human heart. I have stronger memories of the effectiveness of these changes and currents—particularly, a thrilling turbulence—than I noted this time around in Masazumi Chaya’s restaging of the piece. Nevertheless, one especially bright and telling spot is Akua Noni Parker’s deft interpretation of Ailey’s fight with balance and flirtation with imbalance in “Recitativo.”

The dancers unfold the cupped petals of Taylor’s Arden Court and William Boyce’s symphonies with varying degrees of coolness, playfulness—see scampish Rachel MacLaren orbiting reliable Glenn Allen Sims—and exaltation. But the familiar Baroque and Tayloresque musicality of Arden Court has nothing on musicality of a different sort liberated in these Ailey dancers by Reggie Harris’ Home, a world premiere.

 

Linda Celeste Sims and Kirven J. Boyd in Paul Taylor's Arden Court

 

Home, underwritten by Bristol-Myers Squibb, was inspired by the pharmaceutical giant’s “Fight HIV Your Way” initiative and its essay contest on living with or being affected by HIV. Though Harris, well noted for distinctive hip hop–based choreography, reviewed the winning essays, what he produced does not directly address the specificity of illness and crisis. Instead, it reflects inner faith and resilience, a perfect response and a perfect fit for Ailey.

Amid a slowly writhing cluster of dancers, one or two people briefly hop and wave, as if trying to be seen above the crowd. Guest artist Matthew Rushing breaks away, becoming an incandescent, soulful focus as house music pumps through the space—Dennis Ferrier’s “Underground Is My Home.” Rushing’s dancing has never been this free, this juicy. Here, too, at last, are the Ailey dancers as youngsters reflecting their moment, saturated in the musical and dance culture of the streets and clubs. Rarely have they been asked to articulate their whole bodies, from the core, in this way, reflecting a different kind of accuracy, force, speed, feeling and authentic individuality. Later, even faster, more demanding footwork rides on Afro-Brazilian rhythms. The piece made the audience roar, rightly so.

 

Rennie Harris's Home.

 

The night I first saw Home, Battle also introduced many in the audience to the eccentricities of Ohad Naharin. This, too, proved to be less a shock to the system than a loving gift and was received as such.

Minus 16 (1999), restaged by Danielle Agami, is an odd patchwork of recycled Naharin excerpts, presented here in honor of the choreographer’s wife, the late Ailey dancer Mari Kajiwara. Chief among its pleasures is its prelude, a lengthy stretch of physical comedy performed during intermission. A man (Samuel Lee Roberts, wearing an ill-fitting black suit) stands at the edge of the stage and begins to move to the blare of cheesy old cha cha and mambo tunes. Manic yet joyful in his childlike silliness, he seems to have taken to heart that popular expression, “Dance like nobody’s watching,” because he’s hardly self-conscious. In due time, the stage gradually fills with identically attired dancers, all with the same nutty, herky-jerky itch to dance.

 

Ghrai DeVore and Kirven J. Boyd in Ohad Naharin's Minus 16

 

A section of Minus 16 derived from Naharin’s Anaphaza (1993) finds the ensemble of men and women arranged on chairs in a semicircle that spans the stage. They move with the propulsive force of whips, bullets and grenades to an Israeli rock band’s electrifying version of “Echad mi yode'a,” a Passover song of many repetitions and reversals of counting. The steely thrust of the music’s gruff voices and percussion grip us viscerally even as we notice Naharin’s unexplained, if suggestive, imagery—bodies recoiling backward, the explosive flash of white from the dancers’ exposed shirts, a pile of clothing and shoes in the center of the stage, and the unusually rapid disappearance of that evidence before a new section begins.

As Minus 16 approaches its closing passages, the performers roam the aisles, selecting audience members as social dance partners, at least one of whom will emerge as the new star of the show (typically an elderly woman who’s petite, lift-able and game for anything). It’s easy to work the system, though: Want to be chosen to dance? Wear a brilliant color that contrasts nicely with the black suits. Don’t want to be chosen? Carry a notebook and pen and make like a critic.

Robert Battle seals the deal. After Revelations, Minus 16 has become the next most effective way to end an Ailey evening. Getting up on stage and cutting a rug with Naharin’s nutty gang or just watching from your seat in the hall is delirious, unforgettable fun.

 

Naharin's Minus 16


All photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT.

Pictured at top: a moment from Rennie Harris's Home.