writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Fabulous Dancers, Mediocre New Works

Night Creatures, Juba and Heart Song
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Presented by Washington Performing Arts Society
Opera House
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
January 27, 2004

by Clare Croft
copyright © 2004 by Clare Croft
published 28 January 2004

Why can’t anyone make a good piece on this company? In the last few years, only Ron Brown has choreographed a work (Grace) equal to the Ailey dancers’ abilities. The company’s opening night at the Kennedy Center, which featured Washington premieres of Robert Battle’s Juba and Alonzo King’s Heart Song both created in 2003, proved that the trend of mediocre choreography for fabulous dancers continues.

The first three sections of Heart Song got me excited. As a backdrop of wide transparent white strips slowly rises in silence, the stage seems to expand. The dancers begin to appear, in brief solos and duets, looking tiny, but piercing, as they curl their arms and legs around their bodies, then slowly unfurl them. The women, dressed in tutu-esque, green poofy skirts and almost nude tops, look most powerful, especially Dwana Adiaha Smallwood. Later, three men make the twisting and turning movement parallel the sound of the accompanying drum: hitting each step with an initial boom, and then allowing it to resonate through their bodies. Ailey dancers are phenomenal for many reasons, but their use of dynamics—knowing just when to shift from fast and furious into slow and languorous—tops the list.

The men’s exit and the white backdrop’s disappearance mark Heart Song’s downturn. For the next several sections, couples and trios dance in ugly costumes (designed by Robert Rosenwater.) The women wear leotards streaked with fluorescent pink and aqua flames and a male trio wears brown velvet briefs with orange and yellow striped Spandex shirts. At moments, the choreography in these sections shares some of the intertwining quality of the first movements, but mostly it seems to be a completely different ballet, aside from the consistency of the music, a score by Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Yassir Chadly and Hafida Ghanim. The women in green return, led by Smallwood, now grieving the apparent death of one of the men, while Wendy White Sasser dances around the group in a flowing green dress. Who Sasser was meant to represent? I have no idea. How does King’s choreography for her, a soft adagio, fit Heart Song? Again, no idea. And, whereas King wove the dance’s first sections together with short, but effective transitions, the sections lose any sense of connection by the end. The entire cast reappears, women all in green poofs and men in brown briefs, and dance a high energy mix of traditional African, ballet and modern. The dancers were incredible; they know how to build a performance to a climax even if the choreography does not follow any discernible path.

Robert Battle’s Juba, his rendition of Rite of Spring to an original score by John Mackey, does not start or finish in a good place. Four dancers, Linda Denise Jefferson, Glenn A. Sims, Jeffrey Gerodias and Clyde Archer, repeat two motifs throughout: they walk with arms stretched into high “V”s with their hands clasped, and they hop around the stage, pounding on their legs. The pounding, which must have been meant to signal pent-up anger, looks more like a six-year-old’s temper tantrum. Battle does not use stage space effectively, tying the dancers to center stage with no entrances or exits. The movement grows repetitive except for a few Ron Brown-style dance-offs that combine African dance with club dancing.

The Ailey dancers’ skill and passion almost masks all the choreographic failings; they make bad choreography look mediocre and mediocre choreography look good. But when they dance Revelations I’m reminded of how good they can be when their world-class dancing meets world-class choreography. In the Ailey classic Smallwood made eye-catching showings in “Wade in the Water” and “You May Run On” and Jeffrey Gerodias’ perfect articulations highlight the subtle, simple beauty of “I Wanna Be Ready.”

Only in the evening’s opener, Ailey’s 1974 Night Creature, did the dancers ever struggle. In the balletic sections, particularly the petit allegros, the women’s feet and legs were sloppy, rarely closing in fifth position. However, the blue tights and blue shoes and blue lights don’t help them, as everything below the women’s waists runs together into one big sea of blue. Used to seeing choreographers fuse movement from different genres and styles, I find Ailey’s distinct divide between ballet and jazz in Night Creature dated looking, though the piece remains an unobtrusively solid opener.

Performances continue through Sunday.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 4
January 28, 2004

© 2004 Clare Croft




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last updated on December 29,, 2003