writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Ailey's Feast of Dancing and Premieres

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
City Center
New York, NY
December 13, 2003

By Susan Reiter
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Reiter

The premieres just keep on coming each year during the Ailey season, and certainly choreographers must be lining up to get a chance to work with these gorgeous, tireless, dedicated dancers. Many of the choreographers seem to cram as many of the company's A-list dancers into their works as possible—there's no official hierarchy, and artistic director Judith Jamison really spreads the roles around, but certain members are clearly the unofficial soloists—as though they've been presented with a feast and want to sample everything available.

The new works tend to come and go; among the recent ones, Ronald K. Brown's are among the few to find an ongoing place in the Ailey repertory. Too many of the premieres are in suite form, consisting of assembled musical selections and offering a rich display of dancing that does not cohere or add up to much. Some tend toward the harsh and edgy; other are more showbiz and display-oriented.

Alonzo King's new Heart Song does not fall into either category, and is set to a score that is unusually spare and evocative. It sounds like a sampling of ancient chants and melodies from Arab and African villages, interspersed with some fierce sections of drumming, but is credited to three Moroccan composers/musicians: Bouchaib Abdelhadi; Yassir Chadly and Hafida Ghanim. According to an article in the company's souvenir program, these three sing and play the violin, percussion, oud and gembri. "I wanted the really old, traditional stuff. I wanted music that was as far back as they could remember ... I didn't want any fusion," King states in the article.

The composers certainly delivered, and much of the music has a haunting, mournful flavor. King's choreography has a lean, focused quality. Its vocabulary certainly calls on the fabulous extensions and other highly contemporary abilities the Ailey dancers can offer, but it also keeps things simple and clean. The opening is a diagonal processional set to drumbeats, with each of nine dancers appearing just long enough to make a brief impression. Of gently undulating torsos and outstretched arms. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood's subsequent solo is over not long after it begins; she bounds across the stage with the playful innocence of a girl skipping rope.

By contrast, the next section is an extended male duet that shifts intriguingly in tone. Clifton Brown and Benoit-Swan Pouffer, with their torsos bare and wearing pale layered skirts of filmy material, come across as proud but perhaps co-dependent warriors. They frequently lean on each other or collapse onto one another, but then suddenly separate for bursts of dynamic movement in which they unfurl their tautly stretched bodies form a powerful core impetus.

Heart Song keeps shifting tone and never settles into a predictable approach, which makes it more interesting than some of the other extended-suite-form works that Ailey performs. It seems to move for a remote village far form the modern world toward a more contemporary time and place, as the dancers begin to appear in typically sleek trunks and two featured women wear sexy patterned leotards with bare legs. One of them, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, performs a duet with Clyde Archer that seems to turn the tide of the work away from its more elemental flavor. It's striking but somewhat generic in its sleek manipulations.

The piece builds to a joyous, invigorating conclusion. Its penultimate section rides the score's thrilling drumbeats, with Samuel Deshauteurs bounding with the spontaneity of improvisation amid eight pulsating women. This leads right into the finale, in which the stage is suddenly filled with more people than the cast had seemed to include, extends and expands the celebratory vigor. Heart Song is a work of integrity and has its fascinating moments. But it does fall into the large category of Ailey works that present an abundance of riches without providing them with sufficient context or structure.

In contrast, Juba— Robert Battle's first work for the company—is a taut, striking dance that leaves you feeling the choreographer had a clear vision of a beginning, middle and end and complete control of his material. Battle is wonderfully complemented by his musical collaborator John Mackey, whose powerful, meaty score blends amplified string quartet with percussion. It sounds both ancient and contemporary.

The tightly connected cast of four wearing vaguely Slavic aqua tunics over loose deep-blue pants, perform with the same tightly wound, about-to-explode intensity called for in The Hunt, Battle's most frequently performed work. He has described his intention of "conveying an abstract kind of modern ritual in terms of folk dance, and Juba does evoke the feeling—and at times the look—of folk dance in an unspecified way. This is especially true at the start, when they dance with linked upraised arms and flexed feet, their backs to us—a motif to which they return near the end.

Battle asks them to sustain a forceful, high-energy attack that suggests reined-in tension. They pound their fists rapidly into their thighs, explode into shuddering, jerkily fragmented movement, and jump forcefully. A central section, which begins with them lying head-to foot in a line-up from back to front of the stage, offers more sustained movement without any lessening of tension and wariness. Soon they are up and at it again, facing off two-by-two in a box formation, progressing toward a cathartic conclusion, as their barely-held-in energies send them pulsating to the corners and off the stage.

Impressive in its intensity and highly abstract drama, Juba also reveals Battle's confidence in utilizing space—even with just four dancers, he manages to condense and expand the focus and create designs and formations that leave a striking resonance.

After back-to-back novelties, this program (billed as a family matinee) was back on familiar turf with Revelations. It was a fine, balanced performance—not one for the ages, but one that reinforced that this deeply humanistic work is not dependent on casting for its impact. It provided the opportunity to appreciate, among its many wonders, just how exquisitely crafted a dance it is—both in its individual sections and in its overall progression.

The highly democratic casting policy that Jamison maintains—just about every ballet has at least two casts—means that every dancer has a chance to make an individual impact. It also means that sometimes a certain dancer seems to be the star of the evening, while on another occasion he or she is hardly onstage at all. At this Saturday matinee, it was a pleasure to see Deshauteurs shine in all three works. He is of medium-small stature and doesn't dance with flash, but he performs everything with individuality and conviction. After embodying the spirit of Heart Song's climactic drumming, he was part of the electric Juba quartet, and then, performing with disciplined fervor in "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," he helped reinforce the fact that every section of Revelations, even the less celebrated ones, is a gem.

Photo:  Amos J. Machanic Jr. Photo: Andrew Eccles.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 12
December 15, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 20, 2003