The Rebranding of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The more than a half century of choreography on the Ailey program Saturday gives you an idea of where the company is going but also where it’s been. Bridging more than 30 years of choreography two of the new works, “Chroma” ( 2006 by Wayne McGregor) and “D-Man in the Waters Part I”  (1989 by Bill T. Jones) are part of Artistic Director Robert Battle’s forward thinking effort to remake the Ailey repertory. The third work “Revelations” (1960) continues to function as the company’s anchor, a master work, but one that has in its conclusion, for better or worse, become a kind of familiar on stage dance party.

There was also an interesting progression in the evening’s programming from “Chroma”, a bit of hyper ballet choreography about nothing (at least nothing in the narrative sense of the word) to Revelations, a dance rich with history and cultural relevance. Somewhere in the middle was “D-Man in the Waters”, a kind of youthful, good-humored, post-modern ensemble piece that echoed some of the structure and feeling of Jerome Robbin’s “Dances at a Gathering”, but which also brushed up against some of the more idiomatic clichés from Paul Taylor and even Mark Morris. Still, “D-Man” has its own personality and gave us another look at Bill T. Jones beyond the kinds of large scale theater dance works that have made up much of his choreography.

“D-man in the Waters”, dedicated to a former dancer Demian Acquavella (nicknamed the D-man) who died of AIDS rides high on the fresh buoyant energy of music from the first movement of Mendelssohn’s String Octet. It makes a seamless linkup of authentic movement, dance moves, and shifting partnering for a cast of nine dancers. Like Robbins’ work the dancers are individuals (they are dressed in a mix and match blend of green hued jump suits, shorts, tee shirts, and camouflage pants and leggings); they interact but without a narrative. The opening, a mad cap, running mash-up, meshes beautifully with the agitated music. The dancing takes place on an open stage with no set, under a kind of dappled lighting. You can imagine it as a green world where joy and high spirits prevail. Leading the charge was Kenji Segawa, whose airy jumps, soft landings and exuberant running chest slides were a touchstone for everyone else.

“Chroma”(2013 for Alvin Ailey),originally made for the Royal Ballet ,is where at least one branch of contemporary ballet is headed. It requires a kind of perfection and synchronization that was missing or at least intermittent in the Ailey performance. The set is striking, an enclosed white diorama with a proscenium and platform entrance at the back of the stage. The seven sections are driven by harsh often aggressive music assembled by Joby Talbot, garage rocker Jack White, and orchestrations by Christopher Austin. In some ways the movement is a natural fit for the Ailey dancers. The rolling torsos and muscular, pulled down movement generally looked fine but the unison sections, and fiercely interlocking partnering felt, at times, labored.

Watching “Revelations” this time around I was struck by how worn, even dated sounding some of the music is. Howard A. Roberts’ music for “Sinner Man” with its rising half step modulations is especially notable in this regard. The ensemble dancing in this section (Yannick Lebrun, Sean A. Carmon, and Michael Francis McBride) was especially appealing on Saturday, finding both urgency and even humor in the frantic running and turning movements. I lamented that the work continues its life exclusively with recorded music. The premiere originally had music with a live chorus but has been performed to recordings since the early 60’s. If the company is going to continue to offer the work on every touring program it’s time to think about how much better and fresher the whole enterprise would be with a big dose of new performances and real music. Now might be the time.

(The reviewed performance took place on Saturday March 29, 2014. Other programs included works by Ron K. Brown and Aszure Barton.

 

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