In his curtain speech at the Fox Theatre last year, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle described his company’s mass appeal as a kind of gateway into dance. People who wouldn’t otherwise think to attend a dance concert see Ailey, he said, and they get hooked; they realize dance can be accessible, and they become patrons of the art form.
Given the solid Atlanta fan base and number of returning audience members, it might be more accurate to say that seeing a performance by the Ailey company is simply a gateway to seeing the company again the next year. It’s that “give the people what they want” attitude that has made the company so accessible, and therefore successful, over the years. But when does an adherence to tradition start looking like a refusal to evolve?
It seems Battle is considering the dilemma. Under his direction, the company is slowly expanding into more contemporary work while keeping a firm grip on its rich history. But though the current repertoire includes contemporary ballets by internationally acclaimed choreographers Wayne McGregor and Jiří Kylián, those works didn’t make it to Atlanta. Instead, most of this year’s programming reflects past favorites, recognizable names, and tried-and-true choreographers.
Easily the most traditional of the three programs is Ailey/Ellington, a suite of works choreographed by Mr. Ailey in the mid-1970s and set to the music of Duke Ellington. Because of winter weather cancellations on Thursday, the company opened with Ailey/Ellington on Friday night to a packed Valentine’s Day audience. The run continued at the Fox Theatre through the weekend, with an added performance on Sunday evening.
The company standby Night Creature opened the Ailey/Ellington suite and looked every bit its age. Though the showy blend of ballet and jazz dance certainly made a bold statement in its time, the half-hearted pantomiming and streaked, psychedelic costumes made the work feel dated and out of place. An exception came when the radiant Linda Celeste Sims, positioned at the apex of a pyramid formation, led the group in a laid-back, super-cool hip sway. One by one, the dancers left the party, and Sims waved each goodbye in a gesture that felt real, soulful and timeless. But too soon, the choreography returned to shape-driven, formulaic ballet combinations, and the momentary magic faded.
Similarly, emotional moments were clouded by showy tricks in Pas de Duke, a duet for returning Ailey superstar Alicia Graf Mack and Antonio Douthit-Boyd. Sleek and confident in a shiny black pantsuit, Mack looked impossibly long as she extended into classical ballet lines and poses. But after a while, the novelty of her jaw-dropping physical range wore off, and I was left wishing I could see more of her capabilities. Douthit-Boyd, in contrast, looked unsure of himself and uncomfortable in the technically demanding role.
The River, originally choreographed in 1970 for American Ballet Theatre, revealed a more sophisticated side of the Ailey/Ellington collaboration. Though the choreographic structure was simple and the content cliché (complete with a tortured love triangle), the dancers came alive and approached each technical element with measured precision. Akua Noni Parker and Michael Francis McBride were standouts: Parker with her perfect placement and deep emotional commitment, McBride with his endearing goofiness and comedic timing as the odd-man-out in the “Riba” section.
But by this point, we had seen the same movements so many times — slow leg extensions to the side, arabesque turns, and leaps — it became difficult to distinguish one from the next or understand how they represent different ideas. Ailey’s masterwork Revelations, a celebration of African American heritage and the choreographer’s rural upbringing in the Baptist church, was a welcome respite from the formula and a reminder of why this company has such staying power.
Since 1960, the company’s success has centered largely on Revelations, arguably the most popular modern dance work of all time. The work has been seen by more than 23 million people in 71 countries, and the company performs the beloved classic at nearly every performance. Though the Ailey dancers have performed Revelations countless times, Friday’s rendition was inspired and stirring, complete with the best performance of “Fix Me, Jesus” I’ve seen to date.
Dancers Akua Noni Parker and Yannick Lebrun offered the most believable, most natural chemistry of the evening’s duets. Parker’s control was astonishing and though she was the focus, Lebrun didn’t disappear. Both were in tune, not just to one another but also to the music’s powerful sound, and the result was a rare, viscerally evocative performance.
Thanks to Rachel McLaren’s easy attitude and infectious smile, “Wade in the Water,” was also a standout section. With its slinky hand movements and rolling steps, the choreography represents Ailey at his best: movement that feels truly his own, rather than borrowed from the ballet lexicon or Martha Graham’s codified vocabulary.
The Ailey company, despite Friday evening’s lack of choreographic innovation, possesses a hard-to-define spirit that resonates with audiences around the world. And the dancers are powerhouses, with bodies like chiseled works of art and almost inhuman physical capabilities. Kudos to the company for staying true to its history, but hopefully they can explore ways to make older works feel more relevant to modern audiences. If after 50 years Revelations can still resonate, so can the rest of the Ailey repertoire.
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