Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
1 Dec: Exodus, Victoria, Revelations
7 Dec: The Golden Section, Walking Mad, Ella, Revelations
8 Dec: Deep, Members Don’t Get Weary, Revelations
New York, City Center
1, 7, 8 December 2017
Two Premieres and a Revival
Since 2011, the year he became the third artistic director in the history of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Robert Battle has labored to expand the company’s repertoire. European contemporary dance, dance-theater works, balletic pieces like Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, Broadway-style jazz dance, American masterworks – Battle has turned his eye to all of them. These dancers, he wants us to know, will not be pigeonholed. This, despite the fact that they dance Revelations at almost every performance. (It’s a masterpiece, but can you imagine?)
This season there are two new works at City Center, one choreographed for the company by the Spanish Gustavo Ramirez Sansano (formerly of Luna Negra Dance Theater), and the other by the company’s own Jamar Roberts. Add to that, some revivals, including Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter. So far I’ve caught Sansano’s Victoria, Roberts’s Members Don’t Get Weary, and the Tharp. The dancers have looked terrific in all three, though The Golden Section still tests their limits. (Good!) Particular standouts have included Jeroboam Bozeman, who seems to grow more charismatic, more fluid, and more confident with each season, the elegant and fierce Jacqueline Green, and Chalvar Monteiro, a chameleon-like dancer with a silken movement style who reveals new facets of his dancing in each work.
One of the exciting things about the Ailey dancers is how distinctive they are, and how they color each piece. It’s a shame, then, to see them cossetted by constricting choreography, as in Sansano’s Victoria. It seems to hobble them from the waist down, focusing almost all attention on their upper bodies. Even there, the movement – buckling, twitchy, tensile – looks busy for the sake of being busy, like a perpetual-motion-machine. Three skeletal tree-like structures loom over the stage. The music, like the movement, is relentlessly fidgety, a deconstruction of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony by Michael Gordon. Paired with Sansano’s choreography, the effect is claustrophobic.
Which is the last thing one could say about either The Golden Section or Members Don’t Get Weary. The latter is Roberts’ first work for the main company, after creating a smaller piece last year for Ailey II. It is very much a mature work, however, with a strong emotional charge and esthetic signature. The title is taken from a Max Roach album from 2002, though it is set to two jazz pieces by John Coltrane, “Dear Lord” and “Olé.” The theme is human suffering, or, in the words of Ralph Ellison as quoted in the program, the blues: “an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
It’s an apt description for Roberts’ piece, which deals with pain, terror, and conflict, all with an overriding sense of dignity and grace. The ten dancers move in a space of hazy light and shadows, a kind of netherwold of distilled emotions. (The evocative lighting is by Brandon Stirling Baker.) Their costumes, dark blue work clothes ranging from overalls to simple dresses, are both simple and elegant – the work of Roberts himself. Every element of the piece works to elevate and distill the feelings being expressed onstage. Most of all the juicy, symphonic sound of Coltrane.
The dancers start out wearing wide-brimmed straw hats, like field-workers. They walk and reach and kneel, or run, as if fleeing mortal danger. One man seems to die, cradled in Jeroboam Bozeman’s tender embrace. Later, Bozeman tussles with a woman, Samantha Figgins; their duet moves from desire to indifference to aggression and back again. For the elegant Yannick Lebrun, Roberts has created a virtuosic, aching solo, in which the dancer arches his body so deeply that people in the theater gasp. None of this is too literal or overplayed; one of the piece’s virtues is its subtlety, the way it distills and abstracts the human condition.
The Golden Section isn’t new to the company, but its original run here, starting in 2006, never really settled. (Tharp made it for her own company back in 1983.) The dancers then looked uncomfortable in the tricky, acrobatic partnering, and the geeky-cool style didn’t come through. Its revival, a decade later, could still use some smoothing out, but boy does the dance look better. Some of the dancers – like Sarah Daley-Perdomo and Jacqueline Green and Chalvar Monteiro and Clifton Brown – look positively elevated by the challenge.
The thirteen dancers, dressed in gold by Santo Loquasto, tear across the stage, spinning, running, sliding backward, tossing each other into the air. This maelstrom of activity is delivered with nonchalance and swagger. The dancers are cheerleaders, boxers, aerobics champions, all of them tireless, unconquerable. They play sophisticated games with the witty rhythms and word-games of David Byrne’s new-wave pop score. They exist in a separate, heightened realm, a dance heaven.
What strikes me most this time around is the piece’s optimism – it is so clearly the product of a happier, more confident time. If only the rest of us could muster up one tenth of the dancers’ dynamism and strength. The Ailey dancers give us a glimpse into a better world.