That Ailey Feeling
I often get the feeling that the Ailey dancers transcend the choreography they’re asked to dance. With the exception of the inescapable Revelations, the company’s repertory can be hit or miss. But the dancers are so exceptionally good, and individual, and generous in their dancing, that it’s hard not to leave the theatre feeling elated. Let’s face it, Revelations may be the most over-performed work in the entire repertory next to Swan Lake, but it’s a masterpiece. And an uplifting one at that.
The dancers must be so sick of dancing it, and yet, there they go, night after night. It has become a ritual. The cheering begins even before the curtain has opened, and becomes louder as “I Been ‘Buked” begins, with all those hands reaching up toward the light. At the end, when the audience roars for “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” the dancers generously pretend to be surprised at the reaction, and give a full encore. Today’s audience didn’t want to let them go, and the dancers ended up standing there, smiling, applauding the audience. It’s enough to give you faith in humanity, at least for a little while. I’ll add that Chalvar Monteiro gave an exceptionally elegant, clean rendition of Sinner Man. Nothing was sacrificed to speed and attack, of which there was plenty.
The other works on the program did not rise to this level, alas. The opening piece, The Winter in Lisbon, by Billy Wilson, is a highly conventional jukebox ballet set to Dizzy Gillespie recordings that deserve better. The dancers sway their hips, flirt, and pair off in color-coded costumes. (Oh those matching tights and high-heeled shoes!) There is a sultry pas de deux peppered with splits and caresses, sealed with a kiss blown across the stage. Every so often, a puff of dry ice wafts on. The whole thing feels canned.
Mass, by the company’s artistic director Robert Battle, is the season’s novelty, and it’s better. Battle originally made the work, which features a score by his frequent collaborator, John Mackey, for Juilliard students; this is its Ailey premiere. The large cast, backed up by a percussion ensemble – live music! – moves about the stage like a confraternity of monks in long vestments. Battle’s choreography is all about organizing the space through contrasting lines: verticals and horizontals and diagonals. The steps are rhythmic, repetitive, precise: tiny shuffling steps on half-pointe, glides, marching, hopping, running. Meanwhile, the dancers’ upper bodies tilt or twist stiffly. At times they look like puppets; at others, like a hive or a flock of birds. The excellent Jeroboam Bozeman is the first among equals, but it’s hard to understand what, if anything, is the purpose of all this frenzied activity.
A short duet for two women (Megan Jakel and Jacquelin Harris), Ella, followed. Again, Battle’s choreography featured precise, technical steps, this time performed in unison. The steps were set to the scatting of Ella Fitzgerald in “Airmail Special.” The brilliance of Ms Fitzgerald’s syllabic improvisations is blinding; out of this eruption of syllables emerge witty quotations from various songs, everything from “Davy Crockett” to Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” (Day-o indeed!). Though the dance can’t keep up with Fitzgerald’s inventiveness, it is nevertheless a little tour de force. They two women are quick, funny, tireless and perfectly in unison. Fittingly, they end up flat on their backs.
As usual, the Ailey dancers give it their all, injecting – and elevating – the choreography with their strength and commitment. But they deserve better.