Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Renee Robinson Farewell and Ailey Classics bill – Washington

Renee Robinson and Matthew Rushing at the 2012 Opening Night Gala.<br />© Dario Calmese. (Click image for larger version)
Renee Robinson and Matthew Rushing at the 2012 Opening Night Gala.
© Dario Calmese. (Click image for larger version)

Renee Robinson Farewell

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Ailey Classics: Memoria, Night Creature, Phases, Opus McShann, Love Songs, For Bird – With Love, Hidden Rites, Cry, Revelations

Washington, Kennedy Center Opera House
6 February 2013
Renee Robinson interview

“Renee Robinson… We celebrate her tonight!” Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, opened his welcoming remarks from the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House on Wednesday night, introducing the star of the evening – Renee Robinson – on her return to her hometown, Washington D.C., to give a farewell performance with the company that has been her family for more than 30 years. In his brief and lively speech, Battle, who has been at the helm of the AAADT since July 1, 2011, hailed Robinson’s extraordinary dancing career, calling her “the Ailey star”. He spoke of her artistry and ability to “light up the stage” for all these years, noting that hers has been the longest tenure for a female dancer in the company’s history; and that she is the only dancer who has performed under all three artistic directors of the AAADT (Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison and Battle).

The evening felt like a big party, with the Opera House filled to the brim by a cheering, adoring audience. The program, titled “Ailey Classics,” included excerpts from some of the most popular works choreographed by the company’s founder, Alvin Ailey, and was a perfect fit for the occasion, for Robinson herself, as Battle said during his speech, is “an enduring Ailey classic.”

An excerpt from Memoria (1979) to the music by Keith Jarrett opened the evening, bringing onstage an ensemble of nine dancers. Sublime and meditative, Memoria is regarded as one of the most deeply personal and poignant ballets created by Ailey. A highly dramatic curtain opener, this piece was amplified by the performance of Alicia Graf Mack in the central role that was as powerful as it was exquisite.

Renee Robinson.© Andrew Eccles. (Click image for larger version)
Renee Robinson.
© Andrew Eccles. (Click image for larger version)

The audience burst into thunderous applause when the hip-swiveling group of dancers dressed in white and blue glittering costumes took center stage, moving in an electrifying shimmy to Duke Ellington jazz. And there she was, Renee Robinson, their tantalizing leader – part glamorous star, part alluring temptress – guiding her vibrant gang of guys and gals through the nocturnal city streets in an excerpt from Night Creature (1974). Sinuous and flirtatious, she looked absolutely smashing, her sassy movements perfectly reflecting the music’s jazzy mood. With her magnetic stage presence and superb dancing, she engaged the audience in a way that captivated and thrilled. No wonder the crowd went wild, clapping and cheering in a mutual feeling of admiration and joy.

The second part of the program consisted of six excerpts from Phases (1980), Opus McShann (1988), Love Songs (1972), For ‘Bird’ – With Love (1984), Hidden Rites (1973) and Cry (1971).

The company members rose to the occasion, bringing these miniature pieces – some of which have not been performed for many years – to life with terrific style and aplomb. (Robinson herself didn’t perform in this part of the evening.)

Matthew Rushing, who is now the company’s rehearsal director and was listed in the program as a guest artist, gave a brilliant rendition of a solo from Love Songs set to Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” A dancer of great artistry and superlative technical prowess, Rushing turned his “song” in a show-stopper, dancing with extraordinary lyricism, fluidity and control. His beautiful lines and articulated phrasing brought a compelling, hypnotic feel to this seemingly unassuming dance.

Renee Robinson in Alvin Ailey's Cry.© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)
Renee Robinson in Alvin Ailey’s Cry.
© Christopher Duggan. (Click image for larger version)

The supple Briana Reed was very effective in an excerpt from Cry – a famous solo which Ailey choreographed as a gift to his mother and dedicated to “all black women everywhere.” At the end of the piece, Reed was joined by Ghrai DeVore and Demetia Hopkins, their white, ruffled skirts churning and swirling as they breezed across the stage.

The company’s trademark – Ailey’s timeless masterpiece Revelations – closed the program. And there she was once again, wading through blue lengths of silk, proudly holding the white umbrella, her hips moving like waves, her body pliant and nimble. Robinson drew the audience in as she swirled and leaped onstage in an ecstatic and jubilant dance to the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” It seemed as if she had completely surrendered herself to the moment and was empowered by it, her umbrella symbolizing a triumph of spirit over adversity. Her smile and the light in her eyes radiated excitement; her blissful joy was contagious.

And then, in the dance’s rollicking finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” she was as exuberant as ever, taking charge of the group of church-goers. Oh, those piercing looks, wagging fingers and fiercely fluttering fans! Lit by a huge yellow sun, the stage was flooded with the dancers in their Sunday-best garbs (women in long yellow dresses and matching hats, men in black and gold vests). The flamboyant theatricality and overpowering emotion of this number have never failed to bring the house down. And it was the more so on Wednesday night, as the sterling cast, which included Alicia Graf Mack, Jamar Roberts, Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims among others, pulled out all the stops in a fantastic, unforgettable performance.

Renee Robinson silhouetted in Alvin Ailey's Revelations.© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)
Renee Robinson silhouetted in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations.
© Paul Kolnik. (Click image for larger version)

At the end the audience stood and cheered as Battle presented Robinson with a huge bouquet of yellow roses, which perfectly matched the color of her dress. Overwhelmed with emotion, she took a bow and, as the sound from the cheering crowd grew louder and louder, she placed the flowers on the floor, turned back to the audience and snapped her fingers as if giving a cue to the cast. The music started, the dancers formed the lines in the famous “Rocka My Soul” encore and Renee Robinson treated us all one more time to the dancing experience we will hardly ever forget.

About the author

Oksana Khadarina

Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer and a long-time contributor to DanceTabs. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and Fjord Review, among other publications.

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