BWW Review: ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER at The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
From the first moment I ever laid eyes on a photograph from an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance, I was intrigued; the unflinchingly bright colours, the animated strength emanating from the mid-move poses. What was this company? I was further intrigued when I learnt that a delicately wafting umbrella in another dance image I was looking at plays a role in one of the signature pieces by Ailey. This week, I finally went and saw them perform at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts after years of pent up curiosity.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is nothing if not achingly honest, heart-rendingly beautiful, and stunningly powerful.
I step into the Kennedy Center Opera House thinking I am ready for the evening. But before the show begins on Tuesday night, Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle shares a few thoughts with us in honor of the evening's gala to benefit the company. He comments on the core values of President Kennedy, currently being celebrated at the Kennedy Center in honor of the former President's centennial birthday, and his love of art. "'If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth,'" he reminds us, quoting President Kennedy, and the words seem to take on a new life with those of us processing it out in the audience. "In 1960, Alvin Ailey shared his truth by choreographing Revelations.'"
He wasn't kidding. The Revelations is true to its name and as a whole, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is nothing if not achingly honest, heart-rendingly beautiful, and stunningly powerful. I brought a dancer friend with me for the good company as well as to deepen the experience, but you do not need expertise to understand or heighten it. Alvin Ailey reaches into your deepest cavity and takes away your very breath with each broad gesture and every slightest movement.
The Winter in Lisbon, the first piece of the evening, is delightful. Choreographed by Billy Wilson and restaged by Masazumi Chaya, with costuming by Barbara Forbes and lighting by Chenault Spence, it is alternately quiet and calm, funky and fun, steamy and sexy, and simply sweeping. There are shimmies and cha-chas; high-heeled feet flying across the floor; flirty colours and soft tones. I never knew a gesture as simple as a falling hat could be so sublime--Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims had me mesmerized.
There is a wonderful, light-hearted, and high-spirited little piece called Ella, which was choreographed by Robert Battle himself and performed by Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel. It makes me smile and experience anew the music of Ella Fitzgerald. I imagine the dancing in that piece is probably would energy looks like moving around! It has to be noted that Alvin Ailey is an incredibly versatile Dance Company.
Revelations was gorgeous, with the decor and costumes by Ves Harper as well as Barbara Forbes and lighting by Nicola Cernovitch. You can see that they perform it in every single show - because all the dancers in each portion of it move with such great knowledge of and connection to one another and with such perfection of motion. Costumes, set, and lighting in this piece were gorgeous solid colours harmonizing with each other and the sets were brilliant. Each scene takes me to that place and that moment it depicts so that nothing else exists beside it, and so that I feel the heat of the sun and the lapping of water. The umbrella is everything I hoped it to be and more. It is truly a story, a deeply passionate tale from the traditional music driving it to the swell of the narrative as it moves forward through time and feeling, fear and hope and dreams. I think to myself, no wonder it closes each performance.
My favourite piece of the night, however, is Walking Mad, with music by Maurice Ravel and Arvo Part; lighting by Erik Berglund; and choreography, costumes, and scenic design by Johan Inger. Its style remind me almost immediately of some of my favourite companies - The Scottish Ballet and the Swedish Ballet, both of which have visited the Kennedy Center in the last few years. But this piece; oh this piece. I could not move. I could not breathe. It is 24 hours later now and the images, the movements, the feelings still dance inside me playing on a theme like the piece plays on a theme of a wall. It plays on a theme of a wall in Washington DC today and who knows what the wall is; this piece originated in 2001 and premiered with Alvin Ailey in 2016, but it plays in DC today, with a wall that is as much a part of the dance--a character in the piece - as the dancers themselves. I still cannot get over the way one solitary dancer danced with her own double shadow against the wall; cannot forget the way the wall changed shape and danced with the dancers as they moved through hidden doors, over and around and across its surface. I can only say that it must be seen and it cannot be unseen, and that while my plot-driven mind could not find a single story to stretch out across the scenes unfolding on, around, inside, outside, and beside that wall; I am reminded that one of the beauties of dance is not always to tell a story but to evoke an idea that lives on its own wild life within each member of the audience and echoes out into our individual, very real lives long after we leave the theatre--and Alvin Ailey does just that.
I leave the evening stunned, exhilarated, and spellbound - and based on a very, very long standing ovation and all the conversations around me as we slowly spill out of the Opera House and drift away, I am the majority.
You might not do dance or ballet, but you should do Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and you should do it now.
Running Time: approx. 2 hrs, 15 min
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre runs through February 12 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 2700 F St NW, Washington DC 20566. Get your tickets here.