Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dance: Alvin Ailey at City Center

Alvin Ailey has long been my favorite dance company. I like to say that when God created man, he created Ailey dancers; certainly, this is humanity achieving its full genetic potential, at least so far as the physical body is concerned. I still feel this way about the quintessential Ailey dancer, but dare I say that the company is not what it was ten years ago, when I saw Revelations for the first time? The program for December 15, 2010 was perhaps just poorly chosen, or even poorly rehearsed. Perhaps the inclusion of live musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center was a distraction for the dancers, or the producers. Perhaps Judith Jameson is quite tired now, ready to pass her baton to successor Robert Battle. I am looking forward to his tenure, for his featured choreography this evening reminded me of the essence of Ailey: humanity, a thing raw and divine.

The evening began with Three Black Kings, a 1976 work of Ailey's, unfortunately showcasing the worst aspects of the era and the choreographer. The three sections, inspired by King Balthazar, King Solomon, and Martin Luther King, clearly evoked none of these characters, but were instead a confusing parade of slow and plodding extensions and hero-worshipping gestures. It wasn't until after I read the program during intermission that I understood the structure (one given not by Ailey, but by composer Duke Ellington). In this case, I think a less illustrative presentation would have been more successful.

The program improved with Episodes, a piece choreographed by Ulysses Dove in 1987. Unlike the previous piece, this one highlighted the best qualities of its era. Think of a very elevated Flashdance, and you will have some indication of the tone of Episodes. A dark stage with strong bands of light and a spare, booming score by Robert Ruggieri create a plot-less space for conditioned bodies to appear either singly or in pairs, raging alone or against each other. There are undercurrents of hardened sexuality—not sensuality—that I imagined pushed the 1980s envelope, and remain powerful now, if not shocking as then.

Onto In/Side, the Robert Battle-choreographed solo performed exquisitely by Jamar Roberts, the creature I told you God fashioned when he molded Adam from the mud. This was the shortest piece of the evening—Roberts danced for the duration of Nina Simone's Wild is the Wind—but one in which every moment was sacred and to be savored. Here, the body is something organic and foreign, animal and alien, earthen and electric. Tissues are networked with synapses, and a human emerges from the womb of the earth enormous, ungainly, tipping at the precipice, grasping for his inherent nobility. For three entire minutes, my breath stopped still in my throat. This is what humanity is, is meant to be, when you strip away television and cars and jobs and suits and houses and cell phones and all of that crap, even books, and criticism, and philosophy, and nobler intellectual pursuits. This is ur-choreography. This is what we are, raw: deeply emoting bodies, grasping in the dark.

The show would have done to finish on this strong point, but instead, Billy Wilson's 1992 The Winter in Lisbon was tacked onto the end. This is a not particularly interesting or meaningful piece, a Latin-flavored bit of fluff, the kind of thing I've seen done before—and with far better result—by Ballet Hispanico and others. Most offensively, the piece featured "Moe," the one eyesore in the company, who desperately needs a haircut, along with some intensive training to drop his shoulders and raise his extension. I do not know why he is a part of the company. He stood out, even in Three Black Kings, as being out of rhythm with the rest of the group. His chest hunkers in, rather than radiating proudly, as an Ailey dancer's must. Even in his press photo, his head juts forward of his shoulders, like a turtle's, rather than sitting proudly on his neck, like that of every other dancer's. He was so distractingly bad as to appear to be an emergency understudy, but it seems he has danced with the company since 1994. Perhaps it is time for him to retire.

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