Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Programs 1 & 3
State Theatre at Playhouse Square
April 29 & May 1, 2016
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Like the American art form Jazz, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a uniquely American treasure. Few dance companies inspire the level of excitement and anticipation in dancegoers wherever they perform.
No stranger to the company’s charms, a buzz of excitement preceded the company’s return to Cleveland after a 4-year absence. Presented by Playhouse Square in partnership with DANCECleveland as part of its 60th anniversary season, Ailey performed three different programs over three days, April 29-May 1, at Playhouse Square’s State Theatre. I took in two of three.
Program 1 on Friday, April 29 opened with Ailey company dancer Matthew Rushing’s “ODETTA” (2014).
A biographical ballet highlighting events in the life and career of folk music legend Odetta Holmes, Rushing married voiceovers of Odetta (and others) expressing her feelings about living the racially divided America of the 20th century and recounting anecdotes about several of her most famous songs.
The ballet had a musical theater/Broadway-esque feel to its delivery. Veteran Ailey dancer Hope Boykin portrayed the singer known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” as a fierce but benevolent figure that was threaded throughout the ballet’s series of emotionally expressive vignettes.
Rushing’s choreography to songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” “John Henry” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” appeared, in the best sense, like a mashup of movement styles and choreographic approaches from such noted dance makers as Talley Beatty, Ulysses Dove, and Cleveland’s own Dianne McIntyre. Of the work’s vignettes, most impressive was e performance of Kanji Segawa in a heartfelt solo danced to the song “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child.” Segawa’s pained expressions hung in the air like his outstretched limbs, each an indication of a slowly dissolving spirit within. The most delightful of vignettes featured Rachael McLaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis performing to Odetta and Harry Belafonte’s rendition of the English nursery rhyme “There’s a Hole In The Bucket.” In it, the pair acted out the lyrics of the song in a creative and humorous cavalcade of excuses a guy gave his gal for not doing his chores. Also shining in the somewhat uneven ballet, was the determined performance of Boykin.
One of the most underrated choreographers working today, groove-master Rennie Harris’ “Exodus” (2015) began with a dark landscape of lifeless bodies strewn across the stage as dancer Michael Jackson Jr. ran in slow-motion between them toward a weeping woman. It’s hard not to connect-the-dots from this opening scene to that of the recent wave of mass shootings and killings of black men across the country at the hands of police and through violent crime. Harris created a powerful visual.
Set to original compositions by Raphael Xavier, the work for 16-dancers overall captured a feeling of exodus from these senseless tragedies and the status quo malaise the country is currently caught in, toward a newer sense of social enlightenment. Fueled by a dance club beat, Ailey’s dancers boarded a funk train that fast-stepped, arm-waved and hand-clapped its way through hip-hop choreography that pulled the audience along with its infectious vibe. The thought-provoking piece concluded with the dancers gradually swapping their street clothes for all white costumes that evoked a sense of newfound purity and enlightenment.
What can anyone say or write about Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations” (1960) that hasn’t already been written or said. The company’s signature work is like no other in the expectation by audiences, that like a rock band’s greatest hit, the piece will be performed at every program. Because that’s the case, the work is the most telling for its dancers, opening the door to comparisons between current and past company members and dancer lineups as to who performed it best over the past 56-years.
Closing both the April 29 and Sunday, May 1 programs, Ailey’s current troupe gave respectable showings in the ionic work. Highlighting the performances were Michael Francis McBride on Friday, and Vernard J. Gilmore on Sunday, in the moving male solo “I Wanna Be Ready,” and bravura performances by both casts in the men’s trio “Sinner Man.”
Program 3 on May 1 began with Ronald K. Brown’s “Open Door” (2015). The work, in Brown’s fusion of modern and West African dance styles, had a decidedly Latin flavor to it bolstered by Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s music it was danced to.
Featured dancers Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun were Brown’s familiar mother/father figures found in many of his dance works. This time they opened doors for others to step through into having an open heart. The pair began by pretending to don some type of clothing and then pushed their way through an imaginary set of doors leading to a wonderfully rhythmic solo for each.
With its conga and cha-cha beats, the work’s ten dancers, like bustling city-dwellers, powered through stylized hip-swaying, fist-pumping and shoulder-brushing off movements in the lighthearted and entertaining dance work.
Perhaps the most striking and best work Ailey brought to Cleveland, as well as its most non-Ailey-like to those expecting only traditional Ailey repertory, was artistic director Robert Battle’s “Awakening” (2015).
From composer John Mackey’s frantic and booming symphonic score a la Stravinsky, to Battle’s primal folk dance-infused choreography, “Awakening” screamed being a contemporary version of Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Said to be more influenced by the passing of Mr. Ailey in 1989 and the chaos of 9-11, the work was nonetheless utterly impactful and perhaps Battle’s best to date.
His first work for Ailey as company director, “Awakening,” like his signature piece “The Hunt” (performed on Program 2), was relentless in its drama, drive and power. Dancer Jermaine Terry portrayed a futuristic tribal leader born and reborn out of a single-minded clan costumed in all white that occupied a surreal world marked by dotted lights and frenzied repetitive movements.
The exhilarating work that set nerves on edge, culminated not with a human sacrifice to the gods, but a brief awakening of the soul.
Emotionally gripping in another way, master of the pas de deux Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain Pas de Deux” (2005) also proved memorable. Performed by Jacquelin Harris and Jackson Jr. to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” the muscular pair brought a different feel to the pas de deux. Graceful but not fragile, the two imbued a strength to Wheeldon’s dreamlike waltz that was both beautiful and refreshing.
Arguably not as formidable a group as past Ailey lineups that have included the likes of Judith Jamison, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, this current dancer lineup showed versatility and performed with energy, passion and commitment.
For those in attendance new to the company and for those returning to it, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater reaffirmed once again why they are truly an American treasure.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.