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Charismatic Ailey dancers revive classics at Academy of Music

The 64-year-old Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world’s best-known dance companies, rolled into Philadelphia last week (January 27-30). Back on tour after the pandemic that kept them offstage for more than a year, the troupe is celebrating Robert Battle’s ten years as Artistic Director. At the Academy of Music for a five-performance run, AAADT alternated between two programs: one devoted to Battle’s choreography and the other to a revival of Ailey classics spanning two decades of his choreographic career. I attended the Ailey-only program on Saturday night – reviewed below:

The retrospective program featured a medley of excerpts from Ailey dances set to music by Duke Ellington. First off, Constance Stamatiou and Yannick Lebrun flirted their way deliciously through Pas De Duke. Ailey created the piece for Judith Jameson and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976, two years after he defected from the Soviet Union. Jazzy and sophisticated, Stamatiou and Lebrun circled their hips while sizing each other up; their delight in the movement bubbled off the stage. Next came Reflections in D (1962), an early solo composition, originally danced by Ailey himself. Here, it was performed by Vernard Gilmore with controlled yearning. He wore simple blue pants and no shirt, emphasizing the contoured planes of his body.

The third section of the Ellington compilation pulled on excerpts from The River, a balletic piece that Ailey choreographed for American Ballet Theater in 1970, set to Ellington’s first symphonic score for dance. A male quartet (James Gilmer, Kanji Segawa, Christopher Wilson, and Patrick Coker) burst onto the stage for “Falls.” Their bodies glowed against a radiant red background as they attacked the sharp choreography with technical precision. Jacquelin Harris followed in the short, spinning solo, “Vortex.” The River series culminated with “Twin Cities,” danced by Ghrai DeVore-Stokes and Jeroboam Bozeman. Pinned by spotlights on opposite sides of the stage, they struggled to connect – eventually coming together in an exquisitely delicate duet.

The retrospective program also presented two complementary works from AAADT’s first two years as a company. Both pieces, Blues Suite and Revelations, draw on what Ailey called his “blood memories’ of his childhood in the rural South. For greater illumination, a new documentary is available on PBS American Masters that sheds light on Ailey’s roots and artistic legacy.

Ailey choreographed Blues Suite, set to traditional blues songs, when he was 28 years old. It was his first piece for his new dance company and a harbinger of the group’s success to come. It opens in a nightclub, with couples milling about and jockeying for position in “Good Morning Blues;” evolves into a male quintet dashing through “Mean Ol’ Frisco;” and then unveils three troubled women in “House of the Rising Sun.” The central duet, “Backwater Blues,” comes next, showcasing Belén Indhira Pereyra and Bozeman in a sexy power struggle – she kicks him to the floor, only to reconsider and cast her scarf coquettishly in his direction. He takes it as an invitation to whisk her offstage in his arms. The piece ends with a reprise of “Good Morning Blues,” and the couples are in full swagger as they close out a long night of dancing.

The program concluded, as most Ailey concerts do, with the rousing audience-favorite Revelations. It seems no matter how many times the Ailey dancers return to this masterpiece, set to traditional spiritual music, the well never runs dry. It opens with the group moving as one organism in “I Been Buked;” builds up excitement throughout “Wade in the Water” (with the iconic image of a woman holding a white umbrella while undulating amidst rippling panels of fabric); and reaches transcendence with the exultant “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” The charismatic Ailey dancers connect deeply with the meaty movement – it would take a hard heart not to fall in love with them. On Saturday night, the company repeated the final number as the enraptured audience sang and danced along.

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