God Is In the Details
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
by Christopher Correa
A young man steps center stage, placing each foot into the pool of light streaming over him, like a duckling taking to the pond for the first time. He dips and treads in the pale, yellow cone until it starts to fade, forcing him to seek out more illumination. He extends a curious arm and another misty beam pours forth before him. Admittedly, this is a familiar, one could say borderline commonplace, setup for a dance work of the—dubious sigh, please—modern variety. But fears of the mundane were evaporated when something truly magical happened. The young man took flight, right before our eyes. This did not happen in the metaphorical sense (i.e. the one you’d use to describe the halcyon days when Fred and Ginger seemed to float off the screen). Nor did this represent the latest in theatrical aeronautics (i.e. bungee cords and a suspension of disbelief). No, friends if you have yet to be introduced to him, allow me: he is Clifton Brown of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And with the solo piece titled “Caught,” originally staged in 1982 by David Parsons, he really did appear to be defying the states of space and time and, for a brief moment, he levitated.
To clarify, this was all the product of an illusion, of course, as all real magic is. And as always with the most miraculous of fantastical sciences, the emotional resonance one experiences as a result is the true special effect. Brown, a one-man smoke and mirror factory, single handedly coaxed hearts to rise up in the throats of everyone in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The sound of an entire theatre exhaling in astonishment left sonic echoes that rattled the walls.
Brown, assisted by the wonderful lighting designer Howell Binkley and Elizabeth Koeppen’s diamond-sharp direction, was caught mid-roundhouse kick, mid-somersault, mid-air. Dancing across a dark stage, strobe pulses burned his postures and movements in split-second suspended animation. With every flash of light, fragments of body patterns were captured and strung together like a flipbook. One volley of light depicted Brown jerkily walking—three feet above the floor. Another placed him at a constant hover, skimming delicately as a water strider. Accompanied by Robert Fripp’s rippling music, the choreography came to a thrilling head when the spotlight returned to reveal Brown standing center stage again, ramrod-straight, as though he’d been there all along.
If “Caught” represented the most exhausting work of the night (to execute as well as to watch, at a heart-racing seven or so minutes), its thematic kindred, called “Vespers,” rounded off Act One, night one, with similarly cold black and white imagery but also a degree of fluidity that melted the ice.
“Vespers,” Ulysses Dove’s 1986 dance piece for six women, planted its principals on a quiet stage, working with and off of each other in constantly wheeling symbiosis. At first only one dancer sat on a chair, stage left, arching her head back and forth, looking to the heavens and then back down at her feet. The others joined her in a row, all seated, the head rocking taking on a domino effect among them; they looked like churning pistons. The steps, like the costumes, were simple yet elegant, full of curves and cuts, but almost smooth enough to be prêt-à-porter: they made it look easy, like any of us could turn sitting into a chic gymnastic.
A pretty new work called “Love Stories,” featuring music by Stevie Wonder and choreographed by artistic director Judith Jamison, Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, was an athletic, occasionally rough ballet that spoke volumes about Alvin Ailey the man, as well as his influence on contemporary dance theater. In fact, recorded observations made by Ailey himself were woven into the gossamer cloth of music and movement, constructing a heady narrative about dance, inviting, insightful, and never platitudinarian.
Although there were three cooks in the kitchen, the chemistry was never less than smooth. Hip-hop spliced with jazz and polished with balletic sensibilities revealed an invigorating new dance piece as tart and refreshing as orange sherbet. The ensemble, notably the glamorous Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, was luminescent. During moments like these, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater showed themselves to be a company whose intellectual, emotional and stylistic trajectory is practically nonpareil. That is, until the essence of jazz was garbled by an altogether irritating new addition to their repertory.
Even Louis Armstrong’s trumpet could be out of tune on occasion. The choreographer Donald Byrd was commissioned to create a new work for the company titled “Burlesque,” one whose tone harked back to Prohibition Era jazz clubs like the Cotton Club. It suggested a window display at Saks during the holidays; a brightly wrapped, albeit dishearteningly hollow box. The set by Jack Mehler was an ornate (for Ailey), rosé colored circus ring comprised of a ladder-like backdrop, a cascading red velvet curtain and a perimeter of blinking bulbs. Emilio Sosa’s strange, gaudy costumes only hinted at the time period (one girl was wearing a Louise Brooks wig, for example).
But Byrd’s choreography got tangled in its own vaudevillian trappings. A silly catfight received precious time (and Armstrong’s toot toot tootsie) and kicklines of varying complexity and patterning would have been more in place in a Vegas dinner theatre floorshow. Sleep-walky steps aside, “Burlesque” could not be classified as bland enough to ignore because of an unfortunate offensiveness that flattened the fizzy jazz-age sensibilities into a distasteful brine.
If the Al Jolson movie “The Jazz Singer” evokes racial discomfort on present-day viewing—a more recent example would be the director Spike Lee’s controversial film, “Bamboozled,” in which two black characters apply blackface to star in a televised variant on the minstrel show—“Burlesque” conjured similar reservations when it treated its principals like caricatures who weren’t in on the parody. One dancer approached the audience with a po’boy ’s waddle, wagging his head agreeably, his face a rictus of a smile that bared every pearly white. He raised his hands like a beggar, fishing for applause but the audience was unsure whether to reciprocate. Was he seeking out acceptance, or only “acting” like he wanted it? Was this genuine sentiment or was it wit? It was unclear if this represented an irony-laced invective of the racist vaudeville acts of the Roaring Twenties, which made it difficult to exact a cogent social comment. No one could make heads or tails, so the moment was mistakenly invested with insult—theatrical, ethnic, or both.
Once the Charleston and the Lindy Hop found their way into the finale—the choreographic equivalent of Byrd throwing up his hands in conceptual defeat—“Burlesque” surrendered itself as cause for frustrated headshaking.
The most heated dance work on display was Ailey’s own “Hidden Rites,” a lusty, carnal work that evoked the sounds of African thrum beats, the tinny cadences of Chinese instrumentations and the exotic mystique of Egyptian ceremonial vibrations. Dancers suggested jungle cats, assumed deity-like postures and took on the appearance of two-dimensional pictographs come to life.
“Hidden Rites” is, and has always been, a celebration of the body. Although an obvious battle of the sexes is taking place onstage, what has become so apparent is the positions Ailey twisted his choreography into are fragments of a celebration of the fertile mind and body. Observe the women who face their backs to the audience, swaying their hips from side to side rhythmically, their derrieres resembling well, beautiful round fruits rolling softly, seductively on the branch.
The playbooks of Jerome Robbins and Alwin Nikolais were referenced, especially with the complex tonal reciprocity between music and movement. Simple drum beats reminded one of the opening bars of the “America” section of the “West Side Story” suite. And leg tilts and torso screws were reminiscent of “Tensile Involvement.” But “Hidden Rites” is about so much more than either of those works. It is about sex, life, death, grace, raw strength, spirituality and humanity. That these redoubtable themes manage to commingle so erotically is the achievement here.
An appropriate bookend for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater stay in Washington was another piece by the company’s founder. “Revelations” is as close to drama as modern dance has gotten, in that the material covers so much ground and stirs up such a vibrant visual tapestry that one walks out half weeping with a big, goofy grin on his face. One moment the work suggested a religious revival, with the corps of women fanning themselves before a deep orange set. The men entered and joined in the summery church outing, arms outstretched, bobbing around to the most ripping choir rendition of “Run On” one was likely to hear outside of a real house of worship in the early Sixties.
Another section of “Revelations,” in which the dancers swathed in silky costumes tinted various shades of melon, brought some of the most striking aesthetic choreographic structure. The ensemble arched their backs and scooped their arms out, looking like a flock of cranes buttering against an afternoon sky. Water symbolism hinted at a Baptist Piety, but didn’t drown itself or the audience in the message. The addition of pale blue sheets rolling backstage while three dancers floated around each other was enough to wipe you out purely from a visual standpoint. And when the company raised their arms upward, their palms catching at the glints of light streaming in from the rafters, regardless of one’s faith, what was apparent was this: God is in the details. Alvin Ailey knew this. And thanks to “Revelations,” “Caught” and “Hidden Rites”—three works as disparate as the company is capable of producing, but all of which are connected by the singular notion of our capacity to believe in the unexplainable—so did we.