by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photo credit Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater packed The Merriam Theater for the three performances last weekend, performing two separate programs performing premiere ballets by Hope Boykin and Kyle Abraham and program two with choreographer Robert Battle’s “Awakening”, Rennie Harris’s “Exodus” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” Of course, these and other tour programs include Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960, which has lost none of its appeal.
In AADT’s second tour to Philly since dancer-choreographer Robert Battle was named artist director when Judith Jamison stepped down in 2011. AAADT looks as vibrant as ever and these two Philly programs are exemplar of AADT’s artistic range and prowess.
Hope Boykin was with Philadanco for six years before joining AAADT in 2000. She commissioned Jazz at Lincoln Center percussionist and composer Ali Jackson to score her ballet “r-Evolution” which incorporates inspirational text and is narrated by Leslie Odom, Jr. one of the stars of the musical “Hamilton”
An opening solo with Matthew Rushing in a meditative saunter that freezes into body expression of anguish, then other dancers stream in. Boykin creates sharp ensemble lines, with dancers dressed in black, white, green and fuchsia street wear, and expressing different things. One section is a dance for five men who move around each other guardedly, but soon become a unified group. The women follow with similar ensemble esprit in a show dance samba. When everyone gets together, there seems to be an unresolved conflict, but the scenarios of love, community and cultural solidarity emerge and win in the end.
Jackson builds a driving multi-genre jazz orchestral that frames Boykin’s dance mosaic of several dance styles, choreographically ambitious mix of jazz/ hip-hop and social idioms from fine flashes of the jive and bebop dance riffs. The score careens to a blues-gospel finale, with Rushing leads the troupe out to an implied more joyous direction. All along Boykin builds a myriad of ensemble dances, duets and solos, but some the full company scenes have an overpacked and scrambled look that works against Boykin’s cohesive whole.
Kyle Abraham’s meditative and documentary approach builds the narrative core for his three-part ballet “Untitled America” which premiered in December in New York after a year in development. In its final draft “Untitled America” grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, the stunning opening scene a line of men and women in prison clothes in a blinding square spotlight their hands up in wide arcs, then each breaks in postures of confinement, immobility and sculptural positions that evoke incarceration mentally, physically.
Voice-overs of prisoners stories are mixed with a cinematic soundscape spirituals ‘No More, My Lawd’ and Laura Mvula’s ’Father, Father’ about families impacted by an incarcerated loved one. To depict and document the real stories of prisoners and the impact of incarceration on families in dance, Abraham builds a sinewy amalgam of movement vocabulary laced with explosive balletic variants that taps the dancers’ technical prowess and as actors with interpretive artistry.
Cut off from family, either reconciling one’s guilt separate from society’s judgment or surviving in the knowledge that someone has been wrongly convicted or overcharged because of systemic racism. Non –exploitive depictions of a human body being gunned down, or apprehended, rounded up inhumanly- Abraham and this cast meditative and convey what that means in mind, body and spirit.
Choreographically, Abraham builds a seemingly simplified vocabulary, but conveys so much and requires sustained technical control and precision from each dancer. Among the many standouts are Ghrai Devore, Chalvar Monteiro and Jamar Roberts in Abraham’s sobering and eloquent conclusion.
Ailey’s “Revelations” remains one of the most important American classics in all of dance history, and as an artistic document of African American culture. For it to be performed during Black History month during a year of blatant racism once again threatens the very foundation of our nation, is a powerful statement of enduring hope and artistic freedom.
Great to see Hope Boykin and Michael Jackson, Jr. both former Danco dancers in the trio with Fana Tesfagiorgis during the spiritual ‘Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel.’ Afro-Caribbean music pulses in as flags, totems and parasol are wielded in a soulful processional and gloriously danced by Daniel Harder, Megan Jakel, Jeroboam Bozeman and Sean Aaron Carmon. It segues into Ailey’s iconic tableaux Wade in the Water, danced by Rachael McLaren, Vernard J. Gilmore and Akua Nani Parker.
The beatified and anguished moves of Ailey’s solo ‘I Wanna Be Ready’ danced with precision and passion by Yannick Lebron. But it was ‘Sinner Man’- danced by Jeroboam Bozeman (also a former Danco dancer), Jermaine Terry and Sean Aaron Carmon- that electrified the crowd most, each dancer attacking Ailey’s torrential turns and thrilling jumps at full throttle as they hurl around the stage in symbolic escape.
The finale of the church ladies fanning gossip in ‘The Day is Past and Gone’, then the male congregation joining them for the rituals of the church service for ‘Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham’ which Ailey makes a most rousing closer. As the curtain was slowly descending before the cast bows, some audience members bolted up the aisle to avoid the crush, one supposes, but the laugh is on them since they missed out on one of the most inspiring Ailey traditions, the reprise of ‘Bosom’ with some extra moves that on this night blew the Merriam Theater roof off once again.