December 1, 2011

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
New York City Center, NYC • December 1, 2010–January 2, 2011 • Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa


A certain dancer, dressed for Judith Jamison’s parasol-toting role in Revelations and photographed by Paul Kolnik, graces the cover of this season’s press kit. With her torso and head thrown way back, her face hidden, she could be any of Ailey’s beauties. Without an identifying credit, you’d never guess she was Renee Robinson. Some of this winter’s works reminded me of this photo in the way technical glamour obscured individual expression. The brilliant machine that is the Ailey company makes millions of fans happy, but what is sacrificed for that pleasure?


The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is, undoubtedly, the world’s best loved and most secure dance organization. It claims respect for its disciplined ensemble and, in recent generations, has steadily honed a glossy, exuberant technique. Now, with Jamison retiring as artistic director, passing the torch to Robert Battle, this hardy troupe could enter a new phase of exploration and potential excellence. It would be grand to see Ailey dancers break through and let more individuality out.


The celebratory, ceremonial mood surrounding this season—with Revelations mega-casts and Wynton Marsalis at the helm of his orchestra—cannot obscure the reality of the coming change and risk. Nor can it sidestep the fact that Jamison’s gorgeous company has yet to dance anywhere near a risky artistic edge and, this winter, had little freshness to offer.


Instead, this is what transition looks like: “new productions” of works hailing from as far back as the 1960s, like The Prodigal Prince, Geoffrey Holder’s voudon-inspired fantasia, and company premieres of Battle’s The Hunt (2001) and The Evolution of a Secured Feminine, a 2007 solo tour de force created by and still identified with super dancer and independent choreographer Camille A. Brown. Danced this season by lightfooted Ghrai DeVore, Evolution seems far zippier than I remember. But it’s also so much more about that zip and fashion-plate stylishness than about the surface tension and concealed desperation so dramatically embodied by Brown. DeVore wrapped the audience around her little finger, and they’ll most likely remember this star turn without getting to know much at all about their emerging star.


Christopher L. Huggins’ Anointed, the only brand-new piece, reads like a compendium of all things Ailey and, true to its name, an anointing of company saints past, present, and future. With Moby’s music and Al Crawford’s hazy lighting hinting at the environment of a church, Huggins addresses the perennial Ailey desire for praise-song–style dance. Its opening-section heroes—Alvin Ailey and Jamison figures, to be sure—are Glenn Allen Sims and a twirling, birdlike Olivia Bowman-Jackson, both clad in black, skintight costumes. Their partnering unfortunately looks claustrophobic. All that clutching, locking together, lifting, and draping of one over the other, occurs within a restricted patch of space until Bowman-Jackson finally moves off by herself.


In the next section, she takes the lead in a squadron of women whose every slicing, dicing move shouts, “Don’t mess with me!” In a tried-and-true formula, the Ailey dancers throw out energy to the audience; the crowd catches it and lobs it back with interest. (Battle’s The Hunt does much the same with a sextet of men.) In the third and final section, women scamper in shivering red micro-skirts. (Huggins’ costume choices, here and elsewhere, are inexplicable.) The spirit of Ailey? A foreshadow of Battle? It’s hard to know what Huggins intends. You just go with it as a jubilant ensemble ports Bowman-Jackson aloft on the uplift of anthem-like music.


Works like Anointed and Jamison’s meticulous Forgotten Time (1989) made me glad to find the company dipping back into a real praise dance by Ailey himself—Mary Lou’s Mass (1971). Exploring this Catholic service by jazz composer Mary Lou Williams, Clifton Brown, Jamar Roberts, and an elegant Renee Robinson fervently lead an ensemble that reclaims some of the earthy, expressive vitality of a previous Ailey era.


The Hunt
brought the house down. And no surprise. Battle’s ingredients include six male knockouts—Roberts, Brown, Sims, Antonio Douthit, Kirven James Boyd, and Matthew Rushing—bare-chested, aswirl in skirts, and enacting a driving ritual to the thunderous percussion of Les Tambours du Bronx. Burke Wilmore’s lighting makes their images pop, and industrial-strength choral movement socks home the message, “I am Man. Hear me roar!” Once again, the emphasis on design buries individuality and meaning. More damaging, The Hunt betrays its tone and—unintentionally, I’m sure—begins to resemble disco dancing.


No matter. Battle clearly knows how to beguile an Ailey audience. Now, can he forget what he knows and find a new revelation?



Robert Battle’s
The Hunt. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT