Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Ronald K. Brown's "Grace," Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's "Shelter," and Billy Wilson's "The Winter in Lisbon"

City Center, New York City, NY

December 15, 2002
By Maria Roche


The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a rich, lustrous tradition dating back to 1958, but on Sunday it chose to show three of its more recent works – it being just 14 years since the oldest was created. All three were by American choreographers of note, and each had a distinct flavour.

The company opened with Grace by Ronald K. Brown. The curtain opens to a solitary female figure dressed in white dancing to gospel music amid fog. Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, who has both beautiful extension and commanding stage presence, danced an alternatively frenetic and smooth piece – moved seemingly not by the music, but by her own innate desires to move.

This combination of frenzied and immensely controlled dancing was a signature of the piece – with dancers alternating between the two depending on the mood. At times the dancers seemed almost possessed – dancing so frenetically that they appeared to be captivated by the movement equivalent of speaking in tongues. The energy on stage was indeed so high that at times it touched even the audience – enveloping the spectators in its infectious, swaying rhythms.

The costumes, in red and white, echoed this spirituality – at times reminiscent of hell and heaven, at times redolent of the blood and water of spiritual ceremonies. As the piece moved on, the dancers costumed gradually changed from red to white - as if the dance had purified them. The final moment – in which the entire cast walked, into the darkness dressed only in white, had a pale finality.

The music moved from gospel to electro jazz and then to traditional jazz, each instilled with its own spirituality and rhythm. Yet, as the piece moved through there was little interaction between the dancers, who kept a chaste distance from one another. The groups split into small sections, each with their own internal logic, yet without contact between the dancers. What interaction there was, was in echoing or mirroring each other's actions – including a strong section to the corner where the male dancers stomped, turned and kicked in unison. This section, abundant with masculine energy, brought the house down – not least because in unison there was also individuality, as the distinctive bodies of Anthony Burrell, Samuel Deshauteurs, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Guillermo Asca, Clifton Brown and Kevin E. Boseman, each interpreted the dance, and its rhythms in their own distinctive manner.

The second piece, which opened with a pile of beings on the floor, was a thought provoking dance set to limited music, and spoken word. Themed around urban isolation, the desolation of the environment and homelessness, Shelter by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was desolate and moving by parts.

By limiting the music to a drum beat and occasional cymbals for punctuation, the choreographer allowed the speaking voice to become almost instrumental. As its cadences rose and fell, so did the rhythm of the drum and the dancing bodies, until a sense of unity between the three was created. The brain can be seen to be stimulated visually through movement, orally through music, and intellectually through words and ideas. In reducing the oral stimulation through paring down the music, the piece allowed the intellectual and visual stimulus to be more powerful.

With the cast dressed in khaki combat pants and camouflage tops, the piece explored support and separation, individuation and community. Again, there was little contact between the dancers – with the distance and impersonality of the urban environment reflected in the fact that the only touch between the company came when one of the dancers fell – to be caught by the rest of the cast. Or when they all ended in a heap on the floor, discarded by themselves and others. It was that moment that can only be found in a city, where one is constantly jostled by others, and yet can long for a meaningful human touch. It reminded me of Baldwin's vision of New York, or the desperate worlds of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

The words of the piece examined homelessness through the speaker's relationship with a homeless man which instigated his fear of homelessness – and pointed out how easy it is to slip through the community's flimsy safety net. To an American audience, conscious of the current state of the economy, this is a message that was both timely and painful, though how it would have played out in the economic heyday of 1988 when the piece was created is another matter. Other messages in the piece may appear to some to be outdated – but to me, there was an added poignancy in the fact that no matter how many times these statements (regarding endangered species, destruction of the world, the plight of black children in America) have been delivered in the last 14 years, they have gone if not unheeded, not acted upon.

I found the piece powerfully danced by the all-male cast, with powerful ensemble and solo performances. The fluidity of the movement of the company is extraordinary – and their extensive dance vocabulary allows many moments to transcend a sense of conscious dance. The ability of the men to move rapidly but sinously through the dance, to move between moods seamlessly, to connect with each other in half hearted yet intentional manners, served the choreography well. It is to their credit that no one dancer stood above the crowd – not all companies call pull off an ensemble piece of such a high standard.

As the piece ended, with the gradual dying of the light and fading away of the men on stage as the voice questioned what the future held for mankind, I found myself moved by the powerful developnment of sound and rhythm, voice and body. There was little shelter from the questions the piece raised.

The final piece, by Billy Wilson was entitled The Winter in Lisbon but appeared anything but wintery as the stage came alight with multi-coloured florescent costumes and upbeat jazz. In this work, Wilson's Broadway credentials were well displayed, with both chorus and solo performances that reflected his interest in traditional music hall. There was also a fusion, with some parts of the dance more jazz based – and girls in multi-coloured dresses dancing fast jazz with the abandon of the 1950s.

The piece moved from spectacular set pieces, to an impressive quintet which examined the poses and rituals of courtship, with the three male and two female dancers flirting coyly and then more salaciously with each other. After which, Glenn A. Simms and Renee Robinson in the section entitled "Lisbon" danced with the intimacy and understanding of a real relationship – their section sizzling with sexiness but also softness, in contrast to the fun war-of-the-sexes that had come before.

The piece finished with the entire company dancing a large set piece to Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca. It was sensational – a real spectacle of colour, and energy and life. So endemic was that energy that even the curtain call was to the music, with the audience clapping along as the dancers took their bows. It left the audience rocking up the aisles on their way home, and was a smiling end to an evening that had provoked a number of emotions.

I found the dancers of the Alvin Ailey extraordinary in their ability to allow the choreography to speak through their bodies, and the diversity in mood and feeling of the evening was a great testament to their adaptability and accomplishment as dancers.

 

Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Malcolm.


Submit press releases to press@criticaldance.com

For information, corrections and questions, please contact admin@criticaldance.com