writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Dancers of Character

Bounty Verses, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, and The Winter In Lisbon
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

Tehreema Mitha
copyright © 2004 by Tehreema Mitha
published 2 February 2004

The second program Alvin Ailey Dance Theater presented this week at The Kennedy Center was well chosen. It gave the audience works from three different choreographers that showcased the best of the Ailey dancers talents' while presenting three different moods and approaches.

Bounty Verses was a Washington Premiere, choreographed for The Ailey Company by former AAADT member Dwight Rhoden. With thirteen dancers on stage the energy was pulsating. While we are told that this dance “addresses the non-stop pace and complexity of modern life,” no story line was apparent, but certainly the way that the steps and movements are co-joined is complexity in itself. The choreography was fast-paced, joints tightly fitted into each other, the classical sometimes inseparable from the modern movements, the extensions flowing into jazz hip movements. Likewise, the music was a mosaic of classical pieces mixed with jazz and rock.

Lights embedded in steel rods that descended across the stage and then hung at an angle for part of the dance, then rising again, added a “steely’ atmosphere but did not in any particular manner enhance the dance. The men, dressed in artfully torn dark blue tops that showed their strong backs to advantage, were balanced by magenta/maroon cloth that clung to their hips in a cross between shorts and shreds of material that then cascaded down the back of their legs almost like open skirts. Only the men from Ailey could ever make this costume look “male’ and carry it off with such panache. In contrast the female dancers' costumes were almost too conventional, with one shoulder tops in lime decorated with interesting appliqué in blues and purples with short skirts.

The dance starts with all the thirteen dancers in full swing working at top speed moving in patterns that break before one can discern them. In the third section of the dance, couples and one threesome, in every variation that one can think of, perform classical moves that make the dancers twine around each other and then ease out to go on. For me this was too close and too reminiscent of ballet that makes a mere support pole out of the male dancers for the sake of the ballerina. These men have the ability to soar on their own and the women are no less gifted. However, the last section set to rock music is again exuberant with no let up for the dancers. As befits the piece, there is an element of risk in the movements and the dance ends on a high note.

To be able to put together sections from Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, The Bad plus Kurt Cobain and SteveReich all in one piece without making a mockery of yourself…then making dance in which classical movements at times compliment the modern and at other times accentuate their differences is a feat in itself. To be able to do this as one long dance and not have the audience’s eye’s glaze over after a while is the icing on the cake. Whatever the take of the choreographer on modern life, there was no sorrow, no pain in evidence. It ended with energy just as it had begun.

The next piece after intermission was the well-known Rainbow Round My Shoulder by Donald Mc Kayle, a dance set to the music of chain gangs, the subject matter of the dance. The contrast between this dance and what preceded and followed it was stark and made the enjoyment of each dance all the more intense. There is something to be said about the choreography of the earlier stage of modern dance when simple steps and repetitions made a work somehow strong and fearless. Many choreographers now shy away from that still quality of dance, the stillness pregnant with the possibility of the next movement. McKayle understood this well, and utilized the strength of the dancers to bring out the emotion in each step as it is taken, heavy with sorrow and the weight of the chains. When the men move in a line with their arms held before them, one can almost see the chains. That particular Ailey walk, with the swing of the hips tightly controlled and yet accentuated in a roll in the back, takes on a different meaning here, devoid of any sexiness. As the tired and defeated men work on breaking stones, a few dream of their past, personified by the sweet moments in life. The female dancer comes out to define the essence of a sweetheart, a mother and a wife. The two male characters come out to play with this vision, haunted by a wave of emotion.

This, one can see, would be a prized role for any female dancer in particular, as in a short span of time, she gets to portray three very different characters and dance in three different emotions. Renee Robinson fulfilled her obligations to the choreographer with aplomb. She wafted in on a wave of sheer sweetness as the sweetheart, with so much love and more pain as the wife and with wrenching sorrow and dearness as the mother. One felt pity for Matthew Rushing as he danced the role of the boy locked away from ever achieving his manhood in the open world, and the pain for Glenn A. Sims as he took the weight of the world on his shoulders, a man torn away from his life with family.

The chains may have gone to some extent, but this dance is as relevant to American culture today as it was when choreographed by Mckayle in 1959.

Billy Wilson choreographed The Winter In Lisbon in 1992 to celebrate the four decades of Dizzy Gillespie’s music. The dancers wear bright jazzy costumes by Barbara Forbes, and their movements cannot be mistaken for any thing else but jazz! In the first section of this dance the mood is almost everyday as if a bunch of people had got together and decided to swing their hips and play around with the piano showing off to each other and playing with their partners. Slowly the pace picks up and the movement becomes more intricate, yet the casual attitude prevails.

This falls away in the duet danced by Amos J. Machanic, Jr. and Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines. Built more on classical movements than jazz, this duet has lifts that seem traditional but then swoop into dangerous and unthought-of curves. Machanic shines in this piece and is not used like a coat hanger for the female dancer. They appear as equal partners responsible for the emotional buildup of their coupling.

The last section of the dance, with the whole company on stage, ends the evening on a high note. Almost as if the first section of the dance is now presented in high voltage, endowing the moves with speed yet maintaining the jazzy effect.

There are few companies that can hold a candle to the men of the Ailey Company. One of the strongest forces in the male modern dance, this company has male dancers that exude masculinity without sacrificing any of the sensitivity, the gentle nuances, that are a must for character dancing. While it seemed to me in the first piece that Amos J. Machanic, Jr. stood out, I have to say that every dancer in every piece seemed so perfectly chosen for the role, that one can only laud the company directors for each choice and also acknowledge that they have a host of talent frpom which to choose.

The women of The Alvin Ailey Company cannot be held in any less esteem for their thorough training and amazing technical abilities. I found Hope Boykin to be a dancer who caught my eye despite the fact that she had no major character role in the show. My only complaint on this score would be that one almost craves the more substantial presence of female dancers like Judith Jamison who embodied the earlier female roles of the Alvin Ailey Company, giving us a different body perspective of the female form than what is so prized in classical and some modern dance companies on the West.

The annual appearance of The Alvin Ailey Company is well programmed so that those familiar with their works can see new pieces while those who are in the audience for the first time can still revel in the Revelations base of the company repertoire.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 5
February 2, 2004

© 2004 Tehreema Mitha




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last updated on December 29,, 2003