Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Horton Goes Gaga

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is back in Southern California with three wide ranging repertory programs at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.  Along with favorites and revivals by Ailey, the company’s new Artistic Director, Robert Battle, has included his own choreography and additions by Ulysses Dove, Paul Taylor and Ohad Naharin. The company, which is filled with new faces and is charting new directions under Battle, looked fleet and responsive. Naharin’s Minus 16 (1999)and Ailey’s Revelations (1960)concludedthe program in what might be interpreted as a showdown between the dance methodologies of Gaga and Horton. Judging by the reaction on Wednesday evening it seemed that Minus 16, with all of its peculiarities and astonishing sense of vaguely ordered chaos, had prevailed. As one woman seated next to me said, “I can’t believe this is really happening”.

Minus 16, which was originally premiered with NDT II, is the ultimate in unitized choreography. It is a wide ranging collage of stand-alone works that plays against an unlikely backdrop of music that ranges from a traditional Jewish sing-a-long to California surf music, Latin lounge beats,bossa nova and even a bolero. On Thursday a moving duo (Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus danced with deep connection by Ghrai DeVore and Kirven James Boyd)had been added to this version of Minus 16. It was the other pole of musical and movement influence to the work’s centerpiece, the Passover carol,Echad Mi Yodea.  Minus 16 is a piece which never seems to really begin or end, or perhaps one that begins and ends repeatedly would be another way to put it. It finishes with the cast roving through the orchestra seating and gathering audience members to join them on stage in a dance or dare finale. On Thursday, one of the participants got a little carried away and, in a moment of fierce dipping, deposited her hairpiece on the stage. Good times. But at the heart of Minus 16 is a message about how movement rubs off on us the way other aspects of culture and society do. To the company’s credit, they seemed to roll naturally with the complexities of Minus 16,making it look like Naharin’s brand of contemporary dance and theater was as natural to them as the stabbing, outstretched arms and pitching torsos of the standard Ailey repertory. Particularly excellent on this program was Samuel Lee Roberts who begins Minus 16 with his solo improvisations. His version of “stand up” dance mugging (he is alone on the stage for nearly ten minutes as the work begins) initially ignites the work as his improvisations eventually draw in the full cast.

Revelations which is concluding all of the programs looked better in the solo and small ensemble sections than in the full company movements. Particularly memorable were Akua Noni Parker and Glenn Allen Sims in Fix Me, Jesus and Matthew Rushing in I Wanna Be Ready.He brought a true sense of the universality of the solitary supplicant in a muscular and honest solo that was soaked in urgency. It was easily the performance’s best moment.

But the sun never burned or even looked quite hot enough in Revelations’ three part finale on Wednesday. Perhaps there is such a thing as choreography fatigue and perhaps the work deserves to be rejuvenated with a well-deserved rest. Still, at the conclusion, the audience responded with the rhythmic applause that seems to have become as much a part of the Revelations experience as the choreography itself.

Also on the program was Streams (Ailey 1970), which proved to be more of an essay in style than full blooded choreography. It was Ailey’s first plotless work. But, here too, individual solos and duets sections trumped the ensemble work. The work is a revival for the current season. Both Akua Noni Parker in the Recitativo section and the hyper-limbed Alicia Graf Mack in Lamentoso were terrific in their solos. The music, Milosslav Kabelac’s,Otto Invenzions (1965) for percussion alone, is used by Ailey to reference images of water.

In the category of taut, one-act dance dramas, you could not ask for better than Ulysses Dove’s, Urban Folk Dance (1990). It is set for two couples who inhabit adjoining apartments. Andrew Jackness’ spare, claustrophobic set (two sets of tables and chairs and hanging ceiling lamps) aptly conveys the bleakness of tenement walk ups where lack of space, flimsy partitions and unresolved struggle deliver result in emotional conflict.  In the compressed story, we watch the couples work through tensions that remain raw and never seem to soften. The movement is charged with forceful turns and hyper-kinetic, aggressive partnering where being handled and being known remain bitter rivals.  Dove’s work gives us a real picture of real couples on the edge of personal isolation. It is a world in which the women and men stand as equal challengers. The couples were danced with blistering precision and intensity by Linda Celeste Sims, Matthew Rushing, Michael Jackson, Jr., and Hope Boykin. The work is set to Flint, an excellent hard edged, chamber-sized jazz score for piano,strings, and saxophones by Michael Torke. The recorded performance was not identified in the program.

Performances continue through Sunday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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