Despite the unwelcome emergence of a new Covid strain, the house looked full on Dec. 3 for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s evening of new dances by its artistic director, Robert Battle, and its new choreographer-in-residence, Jamar Roberts. In New York, the holidays are inseparable from the Ailey season and this year, despite everything, has that same celebratory feeling.
The company is entering a new era. Robert Battle, who has been at the helm for a decade (already!), is also a noted choreographer, but in 2019, he chose Jamar Roberts to be the company’s leading creative force. It was a generous and a wise move. Roberts has already shown himself to be an incisive artist, and one who, without straining for relevance, captures the spirit of the moment. In works like Ode and Members Don’t Get Weary, he has embraced conflict and pain, but with an unfailing sense of poetry.
Holding Space, his newest work for the company, was created during the pandemic and originally released onscreen. It translates perfectly to the stage, however. Rows of dancers line the space, lit from behind (by Brandon Stirling Baker) so that they move in a smoky murk that conceals their faces, at first rendering them almost anonymous. Their monochrome, unisex costumes (by Roberts) are diaphanous, so we see the outlines of their bodies through the fabric. The movement is jerky and fraught, like military drills gone amok. The theater is filled with the loud, industrial sounds of Tim Hecker’s music.
Gradually the unison breaks up, and we begin to see the differences among the dancers, and in their ways of moving. Bodies buckle and twist. This is not a happy dance. A cube built out of metal pipes is carried onstage, and, to a quieter section in the music for an instrument that sounds like a toy piano, the elegant Jacqueline Green, a dancer of achingly beautiful lines, performs a mesmerizing solo, more classical than the others, undulating through the body, stretching her leg in arabesque. Two other dancers, Jacquelin Harris and Chalvar Monteiro, perform muscular, jittery, unisex steps at the front of the stage. Eventually, other dancers have their moment in the cube, “holding the space,” each moving with slightly different energy, more thrashing or softer, as if each were telling his or her own story. The piece is enigmatic and uncompromising (and bit too long), offering little contrast in sound, color, or tone. But like all of Roberts’ work so far, it is taut with purpose.
In contrast, Battles’ For Four feels like a party piece, despite a gesture toward greater significance at the end. To Wynton Marsalis’s dizzyingly virtuosic Delfeayo’s Dilemma, four dancers perform upbeat, fast, peppy moves, spinning, running in place, smiling, pointing. The dancers, all excellent, are Renaldo Maurice, Solomon Dumas, Belén Indhira Pereyra, and Samantha Figgins. Also made and released during the pandemic, it suggests the frenetic desire for movement that many dancers must have felt after months of inactivity. At the end, however, three of the dancers stand at the back of the stage with raised fists. Earlier, an American flag had been projected onto the stage. Battle seems to be implying that the piece’s gleefulness may be a mirage, concealing a deeper conflict.
The company has quite a few new and new-ish dancers, some of whom were featured in the closing work, Revelations. It is interesting to see Ailey’s great masterpiece performed by a cast who hasn’t yet danced it a million times, and for whom, at times, the technique still requires concentration. The focus shown by Corrin Rachelle Mitchell, who joined just before the pandemic, in Fix Me, Jesus, was a reminder of the challenges posed by the choreography in this pas de deux, the long balances with legs and arms outstretched, the deep tilts, perilous backbends, and the final balance on her partner’s knee. All came off well, but not without effort. James Gilmer, who danced a long, sculptural solo in Holding Space, stood out once again here as one of the three men in the relentless Sinner Man. Chalvar Monteiro, always a standout, got extra applause for the way he stretched and held a few of the balances in that same section. And as usual, the finale, Rocka My Soul, brought down the house.