Photo by Paul Kolnik
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Jazzy Opening at the Academy

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was back in Philadelphia for two distinct programs at the Academy of Music of repertory works and premieres.

There was a palpable sense of dance occasion on the opening night performance of the revival of ‘Survivors,’ a work choreographed by Ailey about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and the company debut of choreographer Twyla Tharp’s celebration of jazz legend Roy Eldridge. The second program featured premieres by choreographers Kyle Abraham and Jamar Roberts. As always, the most anticipated piece that closed every concert was Ailey’s ‘Revelations,’ which always makes Philly’s historic opera house sound like a soccer stadium.

Twyla Tharp’s ‘Roy’s Joys’ is set to classic and rare recordings of jazz trumpeter-composer Roy Eldridge. It opens with nine dancers, silhouetted in blue lighting, as they saunter and sway and characterize the moves of Eldridge’s swaggering jazz orchestral ‘Just Fooling’ a natural fit to Tharp’s breezy

Eldridge’s sultry lead horn on ‘I Remember Harlem’ is emblematic of the jazz cultural renaissance era. Tharp laces in slowed down jitterbug and jive moves from the day, during ‘Hollywood Pastime’ and big-band swing numbers ‘Oh Shut Up’ and ‘Hollywood Pastime.’ Tharp dance pastiche to Eldridge’s growling trumpet and silvery vocals on ‘Une Petite Latuie and Tu Disais Que Tu M’amais a match for some of the wittiest choreography. 

Hard to take your eyes off Miranda Quinn, who is sublimely and fluently articulating Tharp’s style. The men’s comic trio and pugilistic dance-offs with vintage Tharp and dancers James Gilmer, Patrick Coker, and Solomon Dumas make the most of it.

Staged for the company by Shelly Washington last year, ‘Roy’s Joys’ looks a little rough around the edges- the bravely twisty duet lifts, for instance, come off as clunky. Tharp seems out of ideas in other spots, filling in with repeated phrases and a soundtrack that upstages the movement.

But for all intents, ‘Roy’s Joys’ proved a fun warmup before the dramatic intensity of ‘Survivors’ Alvin Ailey’s dance tableau of the jailing of South African freedom fighter leader Nelson Mandela by Ailey and his associate artistic director Mary Barnett. Ailey said the work expressed personal rage over racism here and abroad. Created in 1986, four years before Mandela’s release from prison, there were phoned-in threats to the company that there would be violence at the theater.

The piece’s first half depicts the social unrest of South Africa’s fight to end apartheid. The dancers represent a group of protestors under attack with a moving mosaic of solidarity and resistance, choreographically laced with Ailey’s signature lyrical, muscled technique. It is scored to Max Roach’s fuselage of raging snare drums as the choreography depicts expressions of resistance, rage, and defeat. It crescendos with Lincoln’s screams as prison bars descend with Mandela behind them. As the protestors hold vigil for Mandela, led by Winnie, Ailey fuses his movement with African dance idioms, powerful but too brief.

The second half depicts the unbreakable love between Nelson and Winnie, enacted through the prison bars, set to Lincoln’s voice, now a healing stream of caressing blue notes.

However well-intentioned the message, the literalness strikes as overwrought and dramatically scattered. Still, as is all Ailey’s repertoire, it must be preserved and seen. With that said, Belen Indira Pereyra and Jeroboam Bozeman led this cast as Mandela and turned in a powerful performance.

‘Revelations’ never fails to inspire, move, and thrill with virtuosic choreography and performances. The company performs it at every concert. Like Graham’s ‘Appalachian Spring,’ it is a living monument of dance in America.

And once again, this cast proved that Ailey’s masterpiece is not a dance museum piece. It is a choreographic fountain that keeps giving. From the iconic opening scene, ‘I’ve Been Buked,’ with the ensemble in dance gowns in a v-formation bowed forward and the arc of their arms blooming, as the dancers rise into a body of radiant beams creating one of the most iconic imagery in all of American dance.

Sarah Daley and James Gilmer dance the searing duet ‘Fix Me, Jesus’ Gilmer the spiritual specter as Daley’s hypnotic slow turns, going limp and Gilmer lifting her in redemptive peace.

The baptismal scene ‘Take me to the Water’ is a rhythmic processional with the Ashley Green dancing with the ceremonial umbrella aloft. It segues into the gospel hymn ‘Wade in the Water,’ danced rapturously by Jacquelin Harris, Renaldo Maurice, and Courtney Celeste.

Dancers Solomon Dumas, Jau’Mair Garland, and Kenji Segawa, the fearful and fearless men, run on to the fiery vocal of ‘Sinner Man.’ Their air-slicing leaps, tornadic spins, and body slams to the floor never fail to bring the house down once again.

The Ailey fireworks finale, ‘Rocka My Soul, ‘ is the traditional spiritual with a blazing sun backdrop and the congregation of the faithful assembled. The church women greet each other wielding fans and gossip. The men join them in proud struts, the women busting out in spiritual rapture, and this audience now on its feet, the dance faithful and dance heathen, in rapturous cheers and applause.

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