Ailey Legacy Lives On, Plays it Safe

It’s not easy to preserve the past and appeal to a 21st century audience at the same time.  The heirs of Alvin Ailey’s legacy continue to find balance by pairing commissioned new works with a golden oldie that has become a cultural phenomenon.

With Robert Battle as artistic director, only the third to head the company since its inception in 1958, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented two programs this week at Copley Symphony Hall. Following tradition, both ended with Ailey’s “Revelations,” a dance that was created in 1960, the year of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, civil rights protests, and John F. Kennedy elected president.

“Revelation’s” allure is multifaceted yet simple. Emotionally charged spirituals, exuberant dancing, and brilliant colors grow in intensity, exponentially. Viewers often describe the dance as an exhilarating experience – even a state of grace.

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater's dancers in "Revelations." Photo: Andrew Eccles

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater dancers in “Revelations.” Photo: Andrew Eccles

I recall several conversations leading up to the shows this week. One friend described in detail the exact year he saw “Revelations” for the first time. Another complained that tickets were too expensive. Yet another, who said he didn’t need to see Ailey again, was there on Wednesday night.  Seems after our discussion, he couldn’t resist another chance to groove and join the communal experience.

While I couldn’t help admiring the singing voice of the man in front of me, an ardent fan who knew every word and nuance in “Wade in the Water” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” I was enthralled again by the stunning images of men and women in icy white, the parasols, syncopation, and long strips of brilliant blue fabric flapping and fluttering.  Still, the lighting seemed more muted than in previous years.  Canary yellow fabrics were not as bright as staring into the sun this time.  (I heard rumblings that there was no “Rocka My Soul” encore Tuesday night which is the climax of the work).

Lighting is a crucial and effective element in “From Before,” by Garth Fagan, casting shadows and carving out the gorgeous muscles of dancers dressed in a virtual rainbow of spandex unitards.  Tight polyester costumes seem very odd at first, because the dance is distinctly African and Caribbean in its rhythms and imagery.  Turns out, Fagan won awards for choreographing the Broadway musical, Lion King.

In “From Before,” men and women hit every beat and wiggle chiseled hips.  They evoke giant cocky birds with their big kicks and flexed feet. A petite woman in hot pink draws cheers for her flirtatious musicality.  A final peel off sends dancers into slap steps akin to tap dancing.  Most beautiful and fascinating is Fagan’s keen use of contrast, slowing turns and stretching struts against the fast-paced score.

Fueled by a stunning violin score, Mr. Battles “Strange Humors” is a handsome and short duet for two men. Bare-chested, the men appear identical in neon orange jeans. In short order, they share a life’s story, but are they twins? Or the same person with different personalities?  Battle leaves it open, and the unison sequences are so perfect you’d think there was a mirror on stage.

Kyle Abraham’s new dance “Another Night” feels Ailey inspired yet threads of hip hop and smooth phrasing appeals to a younger crowd. While there is no storyline, there’s an undercurrent of steamy nightlife.  Driven by Dizzy Gillespie’s  “A Night in Tunisia,” the handsome company relishes Abraham’s sexy smooth phrasing.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Alicia Graf Mack. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Alicia Graf Mack. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Abraham has a San Diego connection. He danced a solo for Trolley Dances in 2007, San Diego Dance Theater’s annual site-specific event.  In “Inventing Pookie Williams” he pulled a gender-bender by mixing very masculine hip hop and boxing moves while dressed in a white skirt.  He’s turned a corner since then, and along with several awards, such as the Jacobs Pillow Dance Award in 2012, getting a commission from Ailey, the rock star company of dance, is a big feather in his cap.

In many ways though, “Another Night” fit the expected Ailey style too tightly.  Knowing Abraham’s edgy style, I was looking forward to the gorgeous, athletic Ailey company cutting lose with themes less

wholesome, and more dangerous, even naughty.  And I’m not the only one who’d like to see the company take a big leap into new territory, and (start writing those hate-emails now) end just one program without the golden oldie, Revelations.”

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750 \”B\” St. San Diego CA 92101 Work Phone: 619.235.0804; Website: San Diego Symphony
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