BWW Review: ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER at Tennessee Performing Arts Center
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought works by its founder, Ronald K. Brown, and Jessica Lang to Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Friday, February 28. The company actively engages local communities, connecting with a broader and more diverse audience than exclusively the local dance community. It was humbling listening to audience members remark upon the beauty and pure joy of seeing a stage filled with artists of color, responding to a shared sense of knowing, especially Ailey's work, Cry, dedicated in the program to "all Black women everywhere - especially our mothers." The ability for audience members to feel seen in a 2,000 plus seat auditorium, by a nearly fifty-year-old work, is the platform Ailey left his artists.
Ailey's continued resonance with culture anchored Brown's 2018 work for the company, The Call. Brown described the process as connecting with Ailey and other creative ancestors, to listen and obey to their calls for movement. Brown's history with the company created more of an on-going conversation in movement vocabulary, which he utilized in this work for five dancers. In three distinct sections, music by Bach, Mary Lou Williams, and Asase Yaa Entertainment Group displayed the spectrum of artistry within the company from the formalist narrative of Ailey's modern style to the improvisational, cultural amalgamation of Brown's style. Brown also honored Ailey's relationship with Carmen de Lavallade in a duet to William's jazz score, using more structured technical vocabulary than usually seen in his works, which displayed dancers' deftness and command of movement but felt a little disjointed at times. Brown highlighted the duality in movement codifications, which could be fourth position arm placement easily rippled into flamenco posturing. A ballroom box step slid into pulsating pivot turns. Arms continually raised upward in a wide "V" iterated the call and response dialogue between ancestors and artists. A mix of celebration and remembrance, The Call smartly opened the program to lead the way into connection with Ailey's works to come.
Carrying the mantle of seminal works like Cry cannot be underestimated. Constance Stamatiou delivered in the vein of Brown's ancestral homage, bringing herself into the work in a different time and place than when created. It is a sobering piece to experience, and a lengthy, demanding solo. Stamatiou moved unrushed, finding her rhythm with her audience. As she surged towards the final section, she delivered breath-catching knee-to-nose battements displaying the Africanist aesthetic, celebrating the ability to move even when the challenges at hand are substantial.
Jessica Lang's history with the company is multi-layered; her husband, Kanji Segawa dances with the company as does one of her former dancers, Clifton Brown. Lang trained alongside current director Robert Battle and dancer Glen Allen Sims at Juilliard. En, her 100th ballet, is a Japanese word with multiple meanings, including circle, fate, destiny, and karma. En put the company in the place where Ailey dancers soar, moving at full speed, in polyrhythmic patterns, with lightning-fast directional and dynamic changes, layering powerful crescendos with stillness. Jacquelin Harris tantalized in her expansive leaps circling the stage, gazing at the audience with a confident smile. A small orb hung above the scrim, while a large orb, or moon, sat upstage center. Nicole Pearce's lighting design added power and drama, fading into simmering yellow and orange, before flashing between purple and white. Dancers frequently moved in circular patterns, whether surrounding a single dancer within a circle or rotating through long canons. Lang used complex spatial relationships and tableaus, driving movement with a percussive score. Dancers galloped, hopped in small ball changes, sometimes moving in silence. A supported handstand to somersault phrase from which dancers promptly rewound themselves back to an erect position delighted audience members multiple times. The orbs seemed to continually pull dancers towards them and then release them, like a changing tide. Technically stunning, Lang's work also dwelt in a more abstract place than other works on the program for a bit of escape from the heavy concepts addressed by Ailey and Brown.
My favorite part of Ailey's Revelations is watching people around me see it for the first time. It sparked thought and conversation, and in Nashville, the gospel-centric environment was understood. There were quite a few children seated around me, and their parents (or guardians) took care to begin conversations about what Revelations meant and means. Ailey continues to speak from beyond the grave; like the 1887 Methodist hymn and Brown's call, are we willing to trust and obey?
Photo by Andrew Eccles.