Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre
April 27, 2019
By Steve Sucato
The return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Northeast, Ohio is always a hotly anticipated event. The company’s 60th anniversary tour performances this past weekend (April 26-28) at Playhouse Square’s KeyBank State Theatre in Cleveland rewarded that anticipation with memorable works and dancing.
Presented by Playhouse Square in partnership with DANCECleveland to close out its 2018-19 dance season, Ailey’s program on Saturday, April 27 featured the Cleveland premieres of works by choreographer Jessica Lang, company artistic director Robert Battle, Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts and Alvin Ailey’s iconic “Revelations”.
The program opened with Lang’s dreamy ballet “EN” (2018) to an original score by NYC-based Polish composer Jakub Ciupinski. The ballet’s title is taken from a Japanese word with multiple meanings including circle, destiny, fate or karma. Lang says of the 21-minute piece, it “reflects on the universal experience of coming full circle and, as time passes, we recognize the people we meet along life’s journey who play a part in the fate and destiny of our lives.”
Those sentiments were driven home in Lang’s varied paced choreography that played into those notions of time passing and the circularity of life, offering up moments of motion with the feel of drifting sand and those tinged with idealism. Adding to that, the minimalist stage setting by Lang and lighting designer Nicole Pearce of a color-changing circular disc at the rear of the stage representing the sun and an overhead illuminated globe representing the moon (that was raised and lowered) both symbolized the passage of time from day to night and back.
An ensemble of 13 dancers led by Roberts costumed all in white moved through athletic choreography that melded together ballet, modern and jazz movements. The dancers came together in various groupings, formed circles and rendered a sequence of thematic poses and tableaus across the stage. At one point a group of dancers lifted and repeatedly tossed a female dancer in the air like a cheerleader.
Well-known to Northeast, Ohio-area audiences for her works performed by her now defunct company Jessica Lang Dance on DANCECleveland’s 2014 and 2017 seasons, “EN,” her debut ballet for the company, further stretched Ailey’s repertory range along with audience expectations of the types of works the company presents.
Next, Roberts’ “Members Don’t Get Weary” (2017) proved an impressive debut work for the company by the fledgling choreographer. Danced to jazz music by John Coltrane, the 24-minute contemporary/modern work for 10 dancers was inspired by his watching disturbing world events on CNN that conjured the feelings of “having the blues”. Titled after a 1968 Max Roach album and a Negro spiritual of the same name, the work says Roberts uses “the dancing body to inspire the audience, allowing them to transcend their own personal blues momentarily.”
Roberts’ idiosyncratic movement language was bold, fresh and inspiring to watch. The work began with the dancers in large-brimmed, disc-shaped straw hats that seemed to suggest the toiling of field hands. The dancers’ faces often obscured by the hats, moved through illustrative choreography and some imagery a la “Revelations” that spoke of a harsh existence. As the work progressed the dancers removed the hats and the mood of the piece, along with Coltrane’s expansive music, began to spark optimism. Danced beautifully from beginning to end, the piece was highlighted by a lively male quartet in which dancer Jacqueline Green chimed in with a marvelous solo full of abandon and grace.
Also of note was a lover’s duet by dancers Jeroboam Bozeman and Ghrai DeVore in which the pair exchanged desperate embraces, one in which DeVore pulled down the top of Bozeman’s blue jumpsuit to reveal his bare chest. The duet ended with a downtrodden DeVore slumped on the stage floor with her back to the audience as the rest of the cast returned to the stage. DeVore’s brilliance in the role left a lasting impression.
Battle’s 2016 work “Ella” was then performed in its original form as a solo instead of the now more commonly seen male/female duet. The comedic piece was danced by Chalvar Monteiro to a live recording of Fitzgerald’s song “Airmail Special.” In it, Fitzgerald’s nonsensical jazz scatting that included lines from the songs the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” and “That’s Amore,” was matched in quirky, fun-loving playfulness by Monteiro who mugged and hammed it up for the appreciative audience.
“Ella” proved a delectable appetizer for the closing meal that was Ailey’s “Revelations.” THE signature work of the company performed on almost all of their programs, “Revelations” is one of dance’s most beloved masterpieces. Volumes have been written on it leaving critics like myself with nothing more to say than perhaps comparing casts who have performed it since its debut in 1960. Suffice it to say of the dozen times I have seen the work over the past few decades, this current cast acquitted themselves very nicely to the delight of all present.
Check out DANCECleveland’s 2019-2020 season offerings at dancecleveland.org And if you unfortunately missed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performances this weekend or would like to see them again, the company will be performing in nearby Pittsburgh on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at the Benedum Center.
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.