DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
I first saw Donald McKayle’s 1959 Rainbow Round My Shoulder, a staple of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, very close to its early-1970s Ailey première. Although I always admired it and have watched several generations of powerful dancers in it, I’ve never seen a performance to rival the one at the matinee on December 21st, during the company’s annual New York season at City Center. The seven men in the Chain Gang, their arms braided by the choreography into a taut line of linked woe, erupted in fury and crumpled in grief with such precision of timing, kinetic discipline, and variety of emotional texture that an onlooker was simultaneously pulverized by the misery of the work songs and plaints that impelled them and delighted by the brilliance of the dance action that prompted the feeling. I’ve been at performances of Rainbow where the Chain Gang didn’t seem very far removed from a chorus line; this was quite something else—a messianic embodiment of historical imagination. Soloists Vernard J. Gilmore (as The Boy who learns that he now has no life outside his memory of one) and Clifton Brown (as The Man who, despite his “long chain,” gets murdered anyway) delivered characterizations that rendered the heart—so immediate and visceral that their individual stints on Calvary elicited tears in some audience members. In the triple role of the Sweetheart, Mother, and Wife who variously haunted their dreams, Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines—second-cast in the part (after Renee Robinson) this season and, I believe, making her debut in it—gave a performance that merits some kind of an award. She simply didn’t look like the same person performing three roles. Like the men, she was deeply immersed in the music and the dramatic expression—a tribute to McKayle himself, surely, as he rehearsed both casts for this new production of Rainbow as part of the company’s 45th anniversary celebrations. Yet her achievement was even more terpsichorean than thespian. Her dancing, especially as the Sweetheart, conveyed a truly dreamlike illusion of a body made of putty, turned inside-out by the intensity of the dreamer’s wishes: in the course of adagio transitions that passed through poses without ever pausing in them, she always sought the extra stretch, continually floating from balance to off-balance, often when she was on high demi-point, while her face maintained the composure of a Yoruba sculpture. Sayyed-Gaines performed with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt before joining Ailey in 1998, and I wonder if something of Forsythe’s choreographic methods, which pressure and twist dancers to extend their movement beyond the orthoganal axes that are the basis of classical art, might have contributed in a salutary way to her effects. And what effects they were: in one passage, Sayyed-Gaines performed a turn in a low arabesque, then, prompted by ascents in the melody of a song, converted the low arabesque into two or three higher ones, the last of which seemed, isometrically, to pull her forward and backward at once. I couldn’t quite believe I saw all the elements of this phrase until she repeated it, observing the different levels exactly, all in service to the lyrics and the dramatic implications of the melody’s contour. Thrilling. The performance was also enhanced by what looked to be a clarification of Chenault Spence’s lighting—with its “rainbow” of frosty dreamlight, bloody daylight, and celestial gold—and by what sounded like a newly remastered recording of George Tipton’s piercing renditions of the Chain Gang songs that Robert DeCormier and Milton Okun arranged from the treasure trove collected by John and Alan Lomax—the father-son duo who cofounded the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress—on their travels through the Deep South in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. It is possible, of course, that all the production values looked and sounded brand new because the dancing was of such a high order. Still, this was the first time I’ve ever seen a Rainbow where the gut-splitting life of the prison camps that Alan Lomax described with such vividness in his 1993 memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, were on the stage, in motion, rather than on a library shelf, in allusion.
As time goes by, McKayle’s repertory—now performed by companies across the United States—has emerged as work that is stronger in its craftsmanship, as well as more complex in its treatment of subject matter, than Ailey’s, even though the very discipline its craft requires from its dancers keeps it from generating Ailey’s mass appeal, which is based on freeing the personalities of performers to pour across the footlights. New York hasn’t been able to see as much of McKayle’s dances as would be good for audiences and young choreographers in the city, although, with his comparatively recent appointment as “artistic mentor” for the Limon Dance Company, that situation may beneficially change. Ailey’s genius in showcasing performers, his intuitions about music he respected, and most especially his exuberance and humor can’t be learned; McKayle’s more analytic approach to music and choreographic design, and his understanding of how to present the dancing body so that it “reads” under the proscenium, can. Like Paul Taylor, he has been able to learn about dance construction from Martha Graham and other modern-dance pioneers without also, on the one hand, accepting the inheritance of their psychology and subject matter or, on the other hand, confronting the audience directly as a target of entertainment. In McKayle’s work, as in Taylor’s, the fourth wall is still a wall, and the choreography plays by the rules that entails. (Ailey, in contrast, often punched through the wall to establish an I-Thou relationship with the audience, as at the end of Revelations or in parts of the self-mocking Night Creature. Like Isadora Duncan, who preceded him in this, his successes were outsized, but so were his failures.) To some extent, the two other works on the program with Rainbow attempted to work within this stage-as-the-world approach. Jennifer Muller’s Footprints, a corporate venture (John Brooks, Tracy Kofford, and Yumiko Yoshikawa are listed as Assistants to the Choreographer) commissioned for the Ailey this year, was the more legible and gave more opportunities for its cast to shine as individuals. Muller, who once danced for Limon, still retains vestiges of the choreographic geometry and sense of magic places in the stage that Limon’s mentor, Doris Humphrey, speaks of in The Art of Making Dances, a book now, lamentably, out of print. Heartsong, Alonzo King’s suite of disconnected dances to music and in a setting that evokes the Middle East, offered a more impoverished sense of choreographic design, and its resolute presentation of dancers in deconstructed examples of the ballet lexicon sometimes made it difficult even to tell what they were doing: the work may benefit from a smaller stage than that of City Center. Nevertheless, it presented a number of memorable scenes—a duet for two men, one touchingly dependent on recognition by the other; a wife grieving for her mate, who, dying (or perhaps dead and summoned to an afterlife), painfully rolls away from her toward an implacable underworld guide—that made me want to see it again, despite my irritation with its politically correct insertions of multicultural steps into the ballet lexicon. Both Muller and King, it seems to me, are trying to reinvent a wheel that Humphrey and Graham long ago refined, and that McKayle and Taylor are using on imaginative speedways.
In order to complete this Letter by the deadline, I had to wrench myself away at intermission from the stupendous performance of Savion Glover and his collaborators at the Joyce in a program called Improvography. My colleague, Susan Reiter, is reviewing the whole for The DanceView Times; my point here is that the show runs through 4 January, and if you love dance and music, drop everything and go. Although, as the title notes, the dancing is different at each performance, the basic elements of the production don’t vary. In the first half, on a specially constructed (and miked) sprung floor, Glover spends a little less than an hour showing why the other tap dancers—and tap aficionados—look to him as perhaps the greatest virtuoso in the history of the art form. He can do absolutely anything, at rates that are faster than one can hear, with varieties of loudness and softness that one didn’t know existed, in the manner of any historic tap star, and he deploys his limitless armamentarium of achievements in service of constructing a dance, right on the spot, with a beginning, middle, and end. In Improvography, he also sings (standards from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood), a feat of breath control—given that he’s doing it, a capella and on pitch, while dancing—that beggars description. One dance is two-footed and bracing, in the manner of his beloved teacher Lon Chaney; another is light, playful, full of crossing legs and textural variety—a kind of tribute to the Nicholas Brothers or Coles & Atkins. Yet another has a toddler’s exuberant discovery of rhythm, recalling the late Gregory Hines. A walk of Lexus-smooth paddle-and-roll steps invokes the great Bunny Briggs; a sequence of nerve taps so delicately controlled that one can’t even discern his foot move invokes. . .I don’t know, Michelangelo. If you want to see an entire dance tradition summed up and also extended in an afternoon, this is it.—Mindy Aloff
Ailey American Dance Theater
Thursday, 18 December 2003, 8 p.m.
Creature (from “Ailey Celebrates Ellington,” 1974)
Milk (first version 1984, current version 1992)
Sunday, 21 December 2003, 3 p.m.
Round My Shoulder (1959)
Sunday, 28 December 2003, 3 p.m.
and Choreography by Savion Glover
Note: The music is recorded for the second half of this program.
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