by Roger Lee for The Dance Journal
Photos by Bill Hebert
I first heard about Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater while attending the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. The company came up time and time again during our Horton classes. We watched videos of their signature piece “Revelations” and referred to the company as the “cultural ambassadors of dance.” By the time I reached Ursinus College, I had a strong Ailey foundation that served me well in all of my dance history, composition, and modern classes. We watched videos of the company’s celebrated repertoire and had discussions about the intricacies and philosophy behind the movement, lighting, and costumes.
After revisiting old college notes, watching YouTube footage, and spending lots of time on the company website, nothing could have prepared me for seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater live for the first time on Thursday evening. It was an experience that I will never forget.
As I stepped into the Merriam Theater lobby I was instantly immersed in shoulder to shoulder traffic. After sliding though souvenir buyers and elevator waiters, I was directed to my seat. Audience members chatted, looked at their souvenir programs, and discussed their favorite Ailey pieces. Since the company has been producing work since 1958, the company had a lot of favorite pieces to choose from! This particular concert series marked the beginning of Alvin Ailey’s 2013 North American Tour. They kicked off the tour in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.
After much anticipation, Thursday night’s program began with the piece “Grace.” The 1991 company classic was choreographed by Ronald K. Brown back in 1991. I had the pleasure of taking Mr. Brown’s African-inspired dance master class last month at The Performance Garage in Philadelphia. It was great to witness his work being performed by the athletic and graceful Ailey dancers. Mr. Brown used a variety of music, including Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” to fuse elements of religious and secular dance. The piece began with a solo performed by Linda Celeste Sims. She gracefully used each movement sequence to get from up stage to down stage in a linear fashion. The subtle lighting mixed with Sims’ white dress created a nice visual. The soloist was soon joined by a group of dancers executing strong, rhythmic African dance phrases with fluidity and ease. The strenuous movement could have understandably left the dancers panting and pushing through the movement. However, the longer the piece went on the more graceful, effortless, and charismatic the dancers became. By the end of this long piece the dancers had changed from white to red costumes and back to white again. They also moved their hips and torsos in countless ways to the vibrations of house, jazz, Latin and African music. The audience applauded during certain sections of the piece leading up to their thunderous standing ovation that seemed to last as long as the piece did. What I loved most about Ronald K. Brown’s “Grace” was the intricate, polyrhythmic movement phrases, ever-evolving spatial formations, and his use of the back of the stage. Ronald K. Brown was not afraid to go where most choreographers will not. He was not afraid to have the 11 dancers face the back of the stage and spend significant time dancing away from center of stage or downstage. This choreographic bravery was refreshing to witness.
“Grace” was followed by an intermission that led into Garth Fagan’s piece “From Before.” Although the piece was choreographed back in 1979, it managed to maintain a timeless feel. I could not tell if the piece was created in 1979 or 2009. The movement transcended any particular time period and made this piece one of my favorites. The costuming for “From Before” resembled something that would be found in a Merce Cunningham classic. The colorful full-body unitards showed off the strong physics of the male and female dancers. It was great seeing strong female dancers lifting, turning, jumping, and suspending on stage with what appeared to be the greatest of ease. One of these moments came from long-time Ailey dancer Hope Boykin. She executed a number of high, suspended jumps out of a deep second position plie. Just when I thought Boykin would grow tired or tone down her jumps, I was shocked to see them grow even bigger and more powerful with each plie. “From Before” featured African-influenced movement where the dancers used their backs and torsos in creative ways. This piece proved that the Ailey dancers have mastered the delicate balance between power and grace. This is an incredibly hard balance for any dancer to achieve. It was inspiring to witness this balance all throughout Garth Fagan’s piece. It was also inspiring watching an intricate group movement phrase where dancers pencil turned repeatedly while switching in and out of unpredictable arm positions. Just as I became fixated on the unique turning phrases, more dancers entered in the stage on back diagonals to create a new spatial arrangement. To top it all off, some dancers were given short solos. These solos impressed me not only because of their rigor in technical requirements but also their showmanship. Each soloist seemed to develop a personal connection with the audience while dancing. This was evident because audience members yelled out “Go ahead!”, “Do You Thing!”, and other signs of approval and support. It was great to witness this natural, overt and audible artist/audience connection. This one that is often nonexistent in American concert dance and reserved for commercial dance performances. The Ailey Company’s ability to effectively engage with audiences is a major contributor to their long-lasting appeal and success.
After a short pause the concert continued with “Strange Humors.” The male duet was choreographed in 1998 by the Company’s new Artistic Director Robert Battle. According to Robert Battle, “This is a physically challenging duet containing influences of tango, Martha Graham, and hints of hip-hop and martial arts, with unexpected leaps and falls that break the viewer’s false sense of security. The title of this work was inspired by the writings of Maya Angelou.” The choreographer did not understate the piece’s physical demands. I felt like I was watching a full-out dance or Olympic marathon. Kervin James Boyd and Samuel Lee Roberts leaped on and off of their knees in perfect synchronization and red pants. In one section on of the men executed a high leap and landed on their back, reminiscent of a landing that may be found in today’s vogueing or club dance freestyling battles. The suspended knee and back drops caught the audience’s attention as they “ooed” and “aahed” their way through the piece. From a color standpoint, the red textured pants, subtle red wash of lighting, and the bold red strip of diagonal light stretched across the floor really set an intense mood for this piece. It was the icing on the cake for this courageous, gravity defying duet.
Ailey’s Philadelphia concert ended with the signature finale and fan favorite “Revelations.” The piece was first choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960. It has since become an American Masterpiece and internationally-renowned hallmark of the Alvin Ailey experience. According to the concert program, “All performances of “Revelations” are permanently endowed by a generous gift from Donald L. Jonas in celebration of the birthday of his wide Barbara and her deep commitment to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”
Although I have seen “Revelations” on video, nothing compared to experiencing it live. The piece was broken into three main parts “Pilgrim of Sorrow”, “Take Me to the Water,” and “Move, Members, Move” with smaller sections in between. The soul-stirring gospel hymns combined with dynamic lighting and the natural progression of the movement really stuck with me. From the first group section “I’ve Been ‘Buked” the audience shouted out “Amen!” and ‘Hallelujah!” I felt like I was attending a Baptist church service and the Ailey Company was testifying through unison modern dance movement. The warm spotlight coupled with the clean, simplistic shapes, and the traditional Gospel hymn made this section a true standout. Another standout moment came during Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts’ duet “Fix Me, Jesus.” The music coupled with the beautiful contemporary ballet pas de deux and the dancers’ emotional expressions produced a moment in American dance that I will never forget. What I enjoyed most about Jamar Roberts was his strong partnering skills. He was dependable and captured his partner in every floor lift, aerial suspension, and counter balance. Roberts’ secure partnering alleviated the usual tension I feel when watching an intricate duet with lots of lifts. I felt at ease knowing that he would be there for his partner every single step of the way: literally. I also fell in love with Alicia Graf Mack’s grace, stage presence, lines, leg extensions and pointe. The soloist has had years of ballet training and has overcome serious injury twice. I feel that these 2 major life experiences have shaped Alicia Graf Mack into one of America’s finest dance artists.
While I loved the music, props, costumes, and back undulations of “Wade in the Water,” the intimacy of “I Wanna Be Ready,” and the sheer athleticism, speed, and jazziness of the male trio “Sinner Man,” I was most drawn to the pieces big finale “Rocka My Soul in the Bossom of Abraham.” This piece depicted the African American church experience complete with church stools, fans, big hats and audience clapping and shouting. The audience was so involved that their claps could have taken the place of the recorded music. The women’s fans, flowing dresses, hats, and fan kicks really came together nicely during the large group sections of the piece. Soon the Company men were added to the mix wearing nice dress clothes that complimented the women’s yellow color palette. The audience cheered as the dancers took their final pose on their knees with arms raised. The applause only got louder as the lights faded and came back up with the curtain. This concert produced one of the longest standing ovations that I have ever witnessed. It made me proud to cover the Philadelphia kick-off of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 2013 North American Tour.