writers on dancing


Party Pieces

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre
City Center
New York, NY
December 22 & 29, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2005 by Susan Reiter

The current crop of dancers in the Ailey company look, from the stage, like gorgeous, fascinating people you'd love to hang out with at a party, and certain works in the repertory ask not much more of them than to groove and have a good time. "The Winter in Lisbon," by Billy Wilson, and Ailey's own "Night Creature" are these kind of "party pieces." They turn the dancers loose to dance as fabulously as only Ailey dancers can, act convivial and joyous to the tune of some mighty fine music, and don't require the audience to look for anything more profound beneath the gleaming surface.

David Parsons' first creation for the company, "Shining Star," is definitely a party piece, and its surface certainly gleams. The five men and five women are in white, looking sexy and ready for fun. Even the bouncy ponytails some women sport seem to be enjoying themselves. The springboard for the dance (and its title) is the music of Earth, Wind and Fire—six songs from their "Greatest Hits" collection, so there is bound to be some degree of familiarity and association for many (perhaps most?) in the audience. It's rhythmic and somewhat slick, and comes across to these uninitiated ears as a mix of disco and funk.

An upstage bank of lights changes color according to the mood and adds to the in-your-face quality of the work. The opening section, set to the title song, has the full cast in full celebration mode, feeding off each other's considerable energy. Next comes a duet in which Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell and Dion Wilson often seem to be emulating figure skaters, particularly in the excessively acrobatic (and at times unattractive) lifts. Perhaps Parsons' recent contact with the world of skating, when he choreographed for Ice Theatre of New York, was still influencing him. There was also a moment, seen twice, when she stood on his thigh and leaned out, that came across as a cheap allusion to the "Fix Me, Jesus" duet in "Revelations."

The lights turn red to herald a mystifying and aimless section in which four men don long, loose white hipster coats. They remove them when four women appear and require partnering, then put them back on. It's busy and unfocused, and it's not helped by the music, which at this point is a particularly dull song with a highly manufactured sound. Mr. Wilson—a tall, strapping and especially vivid performer—starts off the final section, his white shirt now open, playfully jiving. The full cast soon reassembles for some more feel-good action, before it's time to wind things up. Like the rest of the sections, this one doesn't come to a very conclusive or convincing close. Mr. Parsons tends to let things taper off, or let the dancers bop their way offstage, rather than find a more theatrically persuasive way to end something.

On this program featuring all the season's new additions to the repertory, Donald Byrd's "Burlesque" (a company premiere—he choreographed it on his own dancers in 2002. It's a welcome dark, at times down-and-dirty series of sharply etched character studies, with the eight dancers (brilliantly costumed by Emilio Sosa) inhabiting a low-down burlesque hall that has clearly seen better days. Glenn Allen Sims was the wonderfully seedy host flashing a welcoming smile barely concealed the anger seething beneath. The seedy environment and sense of barely-disguised desperation are skillfully evoked by all the dancers, whether slouching upstage on chairs or seizing their moment to reveal themselves in the spotlight. Byrd's choice of music is unerring: a selection of taut, sassy early Louis Armstrong recordings that perfectly suit the aura of tacky entertainment born out of desperation.

The performance of "Love Stories" on this program featured the cast that had performed its premiere. Having seen Matthew Rushing perform Judith Jamison's eloquent, reflective solo in the second cast, I was fascinated to see how completely different it looked when danced by Clifton Brown, who unfurled his long limbs with exquisite control and projected a sweet innocence. Yet somehow the solo lacked the larger dramatic dimension with which Rushing imbued it. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood's sheer, infectious exuberance was also notable. Parts of "Love Stories" venture into that "party piece" area, especially when they don their sneakers and shiny loose pants to perform the hip hop-inspired middle section choreographed by Rennie Harris.

Ms. Jamison's highly democratic casting gives so many company member a chance to assert themselves and be noticed, and they respond so beautifully, that one hesitates to single out one dancer amid the many. But Abdur-Rahim Jackson, who positively glowed in all three works on this program, has been such a talented and engaging dancer throughout the season that he deserves mention. He also has a sturdiness, a grounded quality, that harks back to Ailey dancers of an earlier time —while also displaying the razor-edge technique and tireless energy of today's company.

Speaking of an earlier time, the company saluted Dudley Williams with an evening in his honor, to mark the occasion of his final City Center performance. For forty years, this lithe, unassuming yet potent dancer has embodied the essence of Ailey. In her opening remarks, Ms. Jamison, who danced alongside him for many years, said, "he taught me how to phrase. He knew about rubato, how to connect movement," and lovingly described him as a "spry grasshopper." She noted that he "defined the image of the male lyrical modern dancer" and noted that Ailey choreographed 17 roles for him.

The evening was the standard "Ailey Classics" program, which consists entirely of excerpts until the concluding "Revelations," and at times it's too much of a good thing. Mr. Williams performed "A Song for You," the 1972 solo Ailey made for him," with the restraint and delicate touch of a true master. There may be less juice in the joints, less certainty in the balances, but the spirit was more than willing, and the performance was poignant in its transparency.

And then, there he was, front and center in the jubilant final two sections of "Revelations," having as good a time as anyone else up there, fired up with the spirit as though he was dancing those steps to that music for the first time. He received numerous curtain calls and a large bouquet, and spoke graciously afterwards, expressing thanks to his fellow dancers, his audience and, most touchingly to Ailey. It was a moving and bittersweet evening; Mr. Williams embodied the Ailey company for generations of viewers, and an era has, inevitably, ended.

First: Tina Monica Williams and Guillermo Asca in David Parsons’s “Shining Star.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Second:  Abdur-Rahim Jackson (below) and Matthew Rushing in Donald Byrd’s “Burlesque.” Photo by Paul Kolnik
Third:  Venus Hall and Vernard J. Gilmore in “Love Stories.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Volume 3, No. 1
January 3, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Susan Reiter


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