“The River,” “The Golden Section” and “Revelations”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Kennedy Center Opera House
Washington, DC
February 6, 2007

byLisa Traiger
copyright ©2007, Lisa Traiger

The opening night Opera House crowd — dressed to the nines in stilettos, velvet and brocade, classic tuxedos — knew exactly what they wanted from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: legs up to ears, quicksilver leaps and displays of stunning physiques. These days the Ailey dancers can put to shame those diamond-cut models from Bally’s Fitness Centers. It’s a wonder modern dance and ballet classes aren’t bursting out the doors: if dance can make you look like Ailey dancers, why isn’t everyone doing it? The gala ticket buyers certainly got what they paid for: honed bodies plus Sunday-morning inspiration for the soul from the company’s signature work, “Revelations.”

And the dancing? That wasn’t so bad either.

It’s been nearly a generation since the company’s founder died (in 1989), leaving behind a solidly built body of work significantly reflecting contemporary American experience — everything from the seamy honky-tonk of “Blues Suite” to his love song to black mothers, “Cry,” his playful “Pas de Duke,” his swagger-and-slink “Night Creature,” and that timeless masterpiece, “Revelations,” mythologizing in choreography the arduous journey African Americans took from slavery to spiritual redemption by dint of lyrical gospel-inflected dance.

Under one-time Ailey star Judith Jamison’s direction, the company has taken on new choreography, and, of course, new dancers. While remaining a testament of Ailey’s determination to bring his own cultural history to the nation’s stages, the company has also taken upon itself new challenges.

Tuesday evening it was Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section” that showed the Ailey dancers at their explosive best. The 1983 work was the apotheosis of Tharp’s grandly scaled “The Catherine Wheel,” a foretelling of the disintegration of a nuclear family — its petty squabbles suggestive of the world-scaled nuclear proliferation happening as she was choreographing the piece during the Cold War.

“The Golden Section,” like the entire work, is propelled by David Byrne’s wall of music, with its lyric and percussive instrumental tableaux riding over the dancers in a non-stop rush of drums and synthesizer fusing rock and ancient sounds in a harmonic convergence. The 13 dancers, clad in Santo Loquasto’s gold short shorts and legwarmers, put themselves through Tharp’s aerobic paces with breathtaking vigor, riding a current of soaring leaps, intricate partnering and karate kid kicks. They appear as Olympians, medals already hard-won, their shiny gold spandex a testament to their miraculous physical accomplishment. The dancers finessed the challenge of assimilating Tharp’s muscular aesthetic: their lines cleanly cut, their bodies catapults, shot and caught by steadfast partners, their feet a virtual cartoon blur of motion. But in divorcing the work from its foundation — its family, its lopsided, sometimes overwrought “Catherine Wheel” — it becomes in 2007 just so much physical gymnastics, let loose for the whoops and hollers of a crowd. It’s not much different, in that sense, from the overtaxed dancers drawn and quartered on television’s “So You Think You Can Dance?” Tharp was once our post-modern poster child, pushing and prodding dance into new realms. Her “Golden Section” as a stand-alone piece differs little, save in steps, from her Broadway applause-generating gymnastics-and-dance, “Movin’ Out,” with its choreography the centerpiece of a uncharacteristically weak dramatic storyline. It was no surprise that the Ailey dancers could do the work justice – particularly the spitfire Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, vibrant Asha Thomas, the willowy Gwynenn Taylor Jones and the bold Jamar Roberts. What did surprise: the all-dancing-all-the-time intent of the work left only fading afterimages, like the afterglow of fireworks dissipating into smoke.

First created for American Ballet Theatre in 1970, “The River” celebrates the collaboration of Ailey and D.C.-born composer Duke Ellington. In appending jazzy riffs to a movement language informed by ballet, the work imposes its own challenges to the predominantly modern-trained dancers. While they didn’t use the point shoes expected for ballet companies, they demonstrated their ballet chops in the ease they attacked the lyrical currents that run through the eight-sectioned work. The choreographic language is awash in swirls and eddies, undulations that ebb and flow, following the meandering river course of Ellington’s score. Riffing on the idea of river as a life course, following from birth to life to death, the work traces a waterway’s path with moments of delicacy, cascades of tussling, ripples of playfulness, and even times of repose, when water appears as still and reflective as glass.

Taylor Jones and Antonio Douthit in “Giggling Rapids” relished the playful tuneful jazz. Lanky and elegant Alicia Graf was as willowy as a swan at the lake in “Vortex,” and solid Guillermo Asca jostled and grinned, bumptious in the game-like section “Riba (Mainstream).” Finally, Renee Robinson and Clifton Brown soared and dipped, enveloped by the company clad in watery shades of pale blue.

The Ailey dancers always do justice to “Revelations,” never allowing themselves to just show up at the churchy ingathering of spiritual themes. And now audiences, too, know exactly what to expect: it’s an American classic solidified. As the curtain rises, the first poignant hymn-like strains from the gospel recording fill the theater, and audiences applaud and nod in recognition of that classic triangle, the dancers curved like grass bent in the wind, their arms extended in winged spans, their heads dropped, until in a staccato rustle they flick and take flight.

But while the redoubtable piece holds up well, it asks something more of its dancers than mere technical ability. There’s little need of the physical audacity the dancers exhibited in Tharp’s “Golden Section,” or the smoothly insouciant lyricism of “The River.” “Revelations” mines what Ailey famously described as his “blood memories” and that’s what it takes to attain a true spiritual ascendance by the time the company reaches “Move, Members, Move,” the work’s third and final section. The company has the technique to perform the work flawlessly, with crystalline accuracy, but in the quest for a cleanly technical rendering, something larger gets lost.

When Judith Jamison, and later April Berry, used to perform the baptismal scene “Take Me to the Water,” their undulating torsos and swiveling hips, their Cleopatra-proud demeanor and unshakeable strength, were enough to carry the section toward ecstatic reverie. And I miss, for example, the rock solid steadiness Dudley Williams brought to the torso-wrenching solo “I Wanna Be Ready.” Though Amos Machnic did a valiant job, it needs to feel like more than Pilates sit ups. Opening night, Robinson, now in her 25th year with the company, attained something akin to the status of matriarch, carrying herself with a knowing maturity and deliberate grace that dancers less seasoned in the piece have yet to attain. The “Sinner Man” trio, with its demonic leaps, dives and spins was breath catchingly sharp, Jamar Roberts, Clifton Brown and Kirven Boyd, technically flawless, but lacking a sense of desperation that dancers with less technique but more emotion may have the wherewithal to project.

And as the company meanders in for the “Revelations” climax, with hardscrabble straw-hatted church ladies easing their tired bones into wooden chairs, the audience waits in anticipation of the clap-inducing finale. “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” now demands a standing ovation and a preset encore. Who could possibly stay seated when the spirit moves with such unmitigated fervor? Whether the current crop of Ailey dancers carries on that blood memory with the fortitude of past dancers is no matter. The piece is always new for someone. And, really, transcendence, like God itself, is a personal business. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, none are left in theaters after a rendition of “Revelations.” Ailey’s dancers get us up on our feet, one step closer to that essence that rocks the soul.

Volume 5, No. 7
February 12, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Lisa Traiger

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