Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Program A: Minus 16, Home, Revelations
Program B: Arden Court, Takademe, The Hunt, Revelations
Program C: Urban Folk Dance, Home, Streams, Revelations
Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall
13-16 March 2012
When too many surprises come one right after another, I suspect some sleight-of-hand behind the scenes because the odds are against it occurring naturally . The magician, in this case, is Robert Battle, the new Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and his alchemical mix of old and new dancers with old and new repertoire makes a tantalising brew.
CalPerformances has been presenting Alvin Ailey’s legendary company, founded in 1958, at the University of California in Berkeley since 1968. I first saw the company around the same time in New York and found the passionate, emotional dancing very inspirational. In the San Francisco Bay Area over the last 15 years in my role as a dance critic I have been able to watch the company go through many changes and I was disappointed by the direction in which AAADT had drifted – more technically adept but less heartfelt. Judith Jamison, who had been at the helm since Ailey’s death in 1989, was an incomparable performing artist when she danced with the company. However, what makes for a brilliant performer doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great director, particularly following in a giant’s footsteps. She did a very good job in keeping the company alive, but somehow the heart and soul of Ailey himself had ebbed away. Times change and, along with them, artistic goals and popular tastes. The political and social landscapes exert their own influences, as does the current economic climate which has decimated both public and private funding for the arts. In order to keep AAADT’s nose well above the waterline, priorities shifted and crucial elements submerged.
From afar, Battle’s appointment as only the third Artistic Director in 53 years, met with speculation. How could Battle, who had never danced with the company, at only age 39, take charge of this venerable institution? Up close I watched the company dance three mixed programs over four evenings (March 13-16) last week, with choreography by Ailey, Paul Taylor, Robert Battle, Ohad Naharin, Rennie Harris and Ulysses Dove. The performances had already begun to dispel whatever doubts I may have initially harboured concerning Battle’s capabilities, but on Friday afternoon while he spoke with Kathryn Roszak at a public meet-the-artist event in the lobby, and afterward in my own interview with him, they largely disappeared.
Tuesday evening’s program opened with Home (2011), a piece by Rennie Harris that was commissioned by Battle. I was quite disappointed by what you might call ‘ meandering hip-hop in dim light.’ Ostensibly about those living with AIDS/HIV, the only remote connection to the theme that I could glean was a communal celebratory sense of surviving the epidemic. Then, at Thursday’s performance, a different cast turned it upside down. Suddenly the piece took shape, the steps, articulated with an edge, clarified the phrasing. Dancers congealed into pairs and trios and those sharper phrases etched patterns in space, both on the ground and through the air. Various rhythms of limbs and torsos played off against other in a visual counterpoint. Even more surprising was that the cast consisted predominantly of the company’s younger dancers. Not to find fault with the older, more mature, artists, who bring their lustrous talents to other roles, but the hip-hop in this piece is the language of the current generation and they know how to speak it fluently and with determination. I am several generations removed and they are my Rosetta Stone showing me how to find the choreographic structure and meaning of Home.
Choosing to mount Naharin’s Minus 16 seemed either brilliant or misguided. The work of the world-famous Israeli choreographer, who is also Artistic Director of Batsheva Dance Company, could be construed to be yet another step in the evolution of this troupe into an elite, polished repertory company, ever farther from the founding principle to give voice to voiceless Americans. I first assumed the connection was because Naharin’s late wife Mari Kajiwara (1951-2001) had danced with Ailey from 1970 to 1984, but Battle told me that he chose it on its own merits.
Portions of Minus 16 had also been included in his DecaDance, which I had seen when Batsheva performed here in San Francisco in 2004 so I had a point of comparison. Most revealing was the section with the semi-circle of chairs spanning the stage from his Anaphaza. The seated dancers in suits and white shirts move and chant to a Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea” set to intense percussion. The choreography mimics the accumulation technique of the song itself, e.g. like the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built.” When the performers first rapidly stripped off their coats and threw them into a pile in the center, a few of the audience laughed out loud, but as the pile grew higher with shirts, shoes and pants, the powerful Holocaust image became clear and the collective dread was palpable. Later the dancers selected audience members and led them to the stage for a mix of choreographed sections by the dancers and improvised bits with the invited guests to the amusement of everyone.
I discovered that this piece’s various themes were not ‘owned’ by any racial, ethnic or religious group, and that they spoke to Ailey’s audience as well as to Batsheva’s. This was supported by Battle in our interview when he said that he believed Ailey’s vision was very much ahead of his time and that we are now catching up with him. Both oppression and joy, qualities that Ailey frequently employed, are indeed universal, and often juxtaposed as they were in this piece.
Another surprising choice was Taylor’s Arden Court, which opened Wednesday evening’s program. The dancers were simply stunning. I hate to say, but the parallel is that Miami City Ballet does Balanchine better than New York City Ballet. Not to denigrate Taylor’s dancers at all; they still perform Company B better than any ballet company I’ve seen. But the Ailey dancers have worked hard to refine all the gestures, their perfectly synchronised port de bras rival the best Russian companies and they are expressive as well. A roaring ovation at the end was proof that people respond to beauty, even from a different source. I would love to know if Taylor’s own audience ever responds so enthusiastically. It seems that Battle can use new additions to the repertoire as an educational tool to expand the dance horizons of those who might never go see these other choreographers’ own companies.
Additional choreography in this run included two by Battle – Takademe, a solo originally created for a woman, but also performed by a man, in this case, the virtuostic Kirven James Boyd and The Hunt, an intense bonding ritual for six men; Ulysses Dove’s Urban Folk Dance, a many-faceted exposition of relationships as shown by two couples; two by Ailey – Streams, a formalistic modern dance work and, of course, Revelations, an enduring masterpiece that needs the right cast to burnish its intrinsic gleam. Veteran Glenn Allen Sims’s rendition of “I Wanna Be Ready” was the most moving I can recall since Dudley Williams in his prime.
Of note is a group of very promising younger dancers that have joined the company in the last couple of seasons: Daniel Harder shone brightly in everything he performed. Sean A. Carmon, of regal presence and sinuous movement, first caught my eye in The Hunt, then continued to impress in Home and Revelations. Embodying both fierce and fragile were Ghrai DeVore and Demetia Hopkins in Urban Folk Dance.
Let’s hope Battle can maintain the new surge of interesting work to expand and deepen the repertoire and the influx of vibrant new dancers to weave spirit and meaning into the fabric of this company.