The technical ability and sheer charisma of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre dancers has never been in doubt, but there was a period not so long ago when the choreography, outside of Alvin Ailey’s own best works, consistently failed to live up to the dancers. Robert Battle, the company’s artistic director since 2011, has been moving mountains to turn that around. He’s convinced established stars like Israel’s Ohad Naharin, Czech Republic’s Jiří Kylián, and Britain’s Wayne Macgregor to let his company present their showcase pieces (Ailey is the first modern-dance troupe to tackle Macgregor’s furiously fast, abstract Chroma, for example, created for classical ballet dancers), and invited rising artists such as Canada’s Aszure Barton to set new pieces on his company.
The two shows here in Victoria on Tuesday, April 8th, and Wednesday, April 9th, mixed new pieces with old, and (at least on the first night) superbly illustrated what Ailey dancers can do with choreography that’s just as skilled as they are. It must have been difficult for them. On Sunday, the company suddenly lost a second long-time staff member within a week – one to an aneurism and one to a heart attack – while in the middle of a punishing, 24-city tour. (Victoria was the company’s only Canadian stop.) None of that showed, though.
Tuesday opened with Rennie Harris’ Home. The piece premièred on World AIDS Day in 2011 (Ailey died of the disease in 1989), but while it may have been inspired by the stories of people living with or infected by HIV, that remains as sub-text only: you don’t need to know it to be awed by the athleticism of the dancers and touched by the emotion of the movement.
Firmly grounded in hip-hop, especially house style, Home starts and ends with the idea of the collective, the community – with a distinct echo of the opening moments of Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations, which comes later in the show – and could easily have degenerated into cliché: the members of the group heroically supporting each other in times of strife and grief. But the piece is much more complex and acerbic than that. Sometimes people step or fall out of the group; they get isolated; they get angry; sometimes they get happy, too. Mostly, though, they dance in small groups in complicated patterns, with blazingly fast footwork and quick jumps as if the pulsing, gospel-slash-house-music score by Dennis Ferrer and Raphael Xavier is propelling them forward.
This is a dance vocabulary straight from the streets and the clubs, treated with obvious respect by the Ailey dancers. They keep their movement loose and a little rough (helped by Jon Taylor’s realistically tough urban fashions) – the opposite of what they do in the next piece, Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (Part I).
Like Home, you don’t have to know the backstory to appreciate the work, but it is interesting. The piece is dedicated to a dancer named Demian Acquavella, the D-Man of the title, who died of AIDS the year after it was first performed by Jones’ own company in 1989. Jones’ partner, Arnie Zane, died of the same disease the year before. And yet the work, at least the part we saw, feels incredibly buoyant and fresh and alive. Death is lurking, but has not yet grabbed anyone here yet.
Set to an exuberant Mendelssohn string octet, D-Man begins with the dancers quickly lining up, the person at the end then rushing up to the front to start the line again in a different direction. It’s a type of game, but because they are dressed in camouflage, it’s also perhaps a maneuver, a practice for war. The playfulness continues with lots of sly references to classical ballet. At one point, two female dancers carry and hold a male dancer, turning him like a ballerina on pointe. They also dive and swim and slide on their bellies, and often support one other, as when a male dancer stood in the centre between four female dancers and caught each one as she fell.
It was a great lead-in to Revelations which, according to the Ailey website, has been seen by more than 23 million people around the world. The company almost always uses this Ailey work from 1960 as its closer, and it continues to resonate. It’s a celebration of African-American culture, but everyone, of every culture, responds to its joy and its pain. My only quibble: while performed well, I have seen it where two or three dancers shone like hot stars; there were fewer stand outs for me this time. Can’t wait to see what tonights’s version brings …
Wednesday night got off to a somewhat shaky start with Alvin Ailey’s The River. Originally choreographed for American Ballet Theatre in 1970 to a score by Duke Ellington, The River blends elements of classical ballet, pure Broadway jazz and modern and can be a stunner. But the women significantly outclassed the men last night, who seemed out of their depth especially with the classical elements. Many were off their balance, which could be tiredness or injury, but more than that, some lacked the technique required for some of the most basic ballet movements, like arabesque turns and jétés, which was a shock.
However, even with technical issues, The River was still highly watchable. Loosely about birth and rebirth and the flow of a river to the sea, its many short segments allow the emotional focus to change on a dime, from the sensual beauty of the solo female in Vortex (Akua Noni Parker), to the goofy charm of the show-off (Michael Francis McBride) in Riba.
The second and third pieces more than made up for any deficiencies in the first.
Ronald K. Brown’s Four Corners blends West African and modern dance to a score that includes Carl Hancock Rux’s Shadow Interlude and Lamentations as well as songs by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yacoub (and even a little Hey Jude). While not a literal response to the lyrics, the work reflects the music’s preoccupation with grief and spirituality and the gradual road to solace and peace. Here the men fully redeemed themselves: you could feel their bodies reveling in the hypnotic rhythms and their faces came alive. The women, too, were marvelous, sinking into Brown’s movement style – soulful, earthy and close to the floor, with lots of suspensions followed by an undulating release on the beat.
With In/Side, dancer Samuel Lee Roberts simply blew the audience away. Created for Roberts by Robert Battle, and set to Nina Simone’s recording of
Wild is the Wind, In/Side exploits the dancer’s height and imposing (pretty well perfect) physique. That he is so physically impressive is what helps to make his portrayal of a damaged soul so powerful. You don’t expect him to be wounded like a child by life, but he is. In other hands, this piece could go over the top, but Roberts keeps it taut, tight and focused. The movement is extreme and unrelenting: his body contorts; he rolls, flat-bodied across the floor; he opens his mouth in a silent scream. At the end, he walks off stage like a broken man.
Revelations, as always, was a gift to the audience.
[NOTE: Robin’s review of Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève’s Roméo et Juliette, presented by Dance Victoria in March, will appear in Dance International magazine in mid-May. Check your favourite newsstand!]