Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Dec. 11: Memoria, Piazzolla Caldera, Grace
Dec. 12 (matinee): Polish Pieces, Untitled America – First Movement, Awakening, Revelations
New York, City Center
11, 12 (mat) December 2015
Since becoming director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, Robert Battle has shown an admirable desire to open up the repertory and push the company in new directions. Always, the Ailey dancers put their own spin on the steps; no piece comes out of the process looking like a cookie-cutter replica of the original. Warmth, exuberance, power, finesse – all these qualities infuse everything they do.
Inevitably, though, the company sometimes looks uncomfortable as it assimilates less-familiar styles. Some pieces, like the “Toccata” from Talley Beatty’s 1960 work Come and Get the Beauty of it Hot (revived recently), haven’t clicked. At these times, the dancers are like singers vocalizing in a language they don’t fully grasp; the result is unidiomatic, forced. This was the case with Paul Taylor’s Arden Court a few seasons back, unsurprising given that it was the first Taylor piece to enter the repertory. Now, the same is true of Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera. The outlines are there, but the diction is off.
You can see why Battle would want his dancers to tackle Taylor. Taylor’s dances, especially these particular dances, are full of fast, crisp footwork that illuminates the music and enlivens the body. Piazzolla, in particular, is all about counterpoint and sharp accents that play a cat-and-mouse game with the beat. (Tango is a famously accented and footwork-heavy dance.) But, the Ailey dancers haven’t yet mastered that sharpness; the syncopations are fuzzy. There’s also an overriding problem of tone. Piazzolla is an exaltation of the sultriness of tango, but also, and more intriguingly, an exploration of the loneliness that underpins that sultriness. It’s an essay in thwarted, hopeless desire, embodied in various scenarios: the woman rejected by several potential lovers; the needy threesome; the drunk same-sex couple battling it out in the bedroom and on the dancefloor. Taylor is an experienced and jaded observer of human behavior, but that wisdom is barely perceptible here. Without it, Piazzolla becomes an exhibition of tango clichés.
On Dec. 11, Piazzolla was framed by two company favorites, Ailey’s 1979 Memoria and Ronald K. Brown’s 1999 Grace. The two are notably similar in content and tone: meditations on spirituality, sensuality and joy. Both hinge on a central female character, a spiritual seeker who gathers a community around her, looking up to the sky for guidance. Memoria is set to one of Keith Jarrett’s more new-agey jazz scores; Grace opens with a Duke Ellington song, “Come Sunday,” and then segues into a over-long sequence of house-music. (Too much of the same beat.) Both pieces outlast their welcome, but the Brown is enlivened by the choreographer’s remarkable ability to move dancers across the stage in shifting and eye-catching patterns. He adds and subtracts dancers with amazing ease and uses asymmetry and multi-directional movement to keep things varied and interesting. His dances seem to flow beyond the stage and into the wings. Jacqueline Green, fast becoming a central player, was elegant and direct in Memoria; Linda Celeste Sims more emphatic and categorical in Grace.
The Dec. 12 matinée included a brand-new work, Battle’s Awakening (which I was seeing for the second time), and a fragment: Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America: First Movement. The latter will eventually become the opening section of a three-part suite on “the lasting impact of incarceration in the prison system on individuals and families across generations” (according to the press materials). A timely subject, but wholly un-recognizable in the five-minute excerpt for three women performed here. At present, Untitled has the feel of a movement study exploring the use of rippling effects through the torso and arms and images of consolation. I expected more from Abraham.
Battle’s Awakening did not acquire more heft upon second viewing, though the dancers gave it their all. Each of the two sections is set to cataclysmic-sounding music by John Mackey. The dance begins with a dystopian upheaval in which figures run in frenzied patterns about the stage or cower in tight huddles, as if protecting themselves from an imminent threat. Then, in the second section, a shower of light falls upon one man – at this performance, Jeroboam Bozeman – marking him as the chosen one. He falls, he crawls, he struggles, as, around him, the others join in a staccato folk dance. Eventually, he rises to his feet: a Moses-like leader has appeared. A grid of lights flickers behind the dancers, suggesting constellations, a black hole, the inner workings of a space-ship (designs by Al Crawford). For all its turmoil, Awakening never quite convinces you of its premise.
Hans van Manen’s Polish Pieces, first performed by Ailey in 1996, opened the program. Clad in Keso Dekker’s candy-colored unitards, the dancers looked impossibly beautiful. They also made Van Manen’s unimaginative, musically-plodding movement look far better than it deserves to. They shuffled to the beat, swiveled to the beat, and kicked to the beat, perfectly in time with Henryk Gorecki’s pounding “Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings” and “Three Pieces in the Old Style.” (Gorecki is Polish, hence the title.) These group activities eventually led into two pas de deux; both were performed with great polish, the first by Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, the second, more balletic, by Sarah Daley and Jermaine Terry. But beyond the dancers’ sleek delivery, there’s not much to see here.
What a relief, then, to return to Revelations, Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece. But, as Battle knows, the dancers need, and deserve, more.