Review: Fifty Years Since its Founding, Ailey II Takes the Spotlight

Alvin Ailey’s second performing company has served as a training ground for new artists. In its golden season, the company establishes itself as a force in its own right.

By: Apr. 11, 2024
Review: Fifty Years Since its Founding, Ailey II Takes the Spotlight
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Half a century since its founding Ailey II has become a force in its own right. The studio-to-stage program is well known for being one the most rigorous “finishing schools” for emerging artists who seek to join Ailey’s main company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This year, however, Ailey II’s New York season, running April 9th-14th at The Joyce Theatre, makes it clear that the company’s knack for connecting passionate, early-career dance talent with inventive choreographers has given Ailey II its own unique edge.

Review: Fifty Years Since its Founding, Ailey II Takes the Spotlight
Maya Finman-Palmer in "Divining."

The company’s current season includes restaging of the classic works “Divining”, “Blues Suite,” “The Lark Ascending” and "Streams”, as well as the new works “John 4:20” and “Luminous.” It is immediately apparent that the night’s programming is built around the company’s featured dancers. In an auspicious start, Maya Finman-Palmer opens the show in “Divining” one of Judith Jamison’s less forgiving solo pieces. Finman-Palmer’s technical aptitude, however, makes feats of balance and flexibility appear natural and unassuming. Her grace and confidence draws audiences in when she is alone on stage or in the ensemble. Jaryd Farcon is another standout. In his every moment on stage, it is clear there is no one else who embodies the choreography as consistently and effortlessly as he does. 

In “Blues Suite,” as that quintessentially Ailey sun rises on the stage, Masazumi Chaya, Sylvia Waters, Renee Robinson and Kanji Segawa’s interpretation of the piece, particularly its second movement, “House of the Rising Sun,” is at once tender and fierce. Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish, tasked with reimagining Ailey’s “Divining” and “The Lark Ascending,” infuses these classic works with an energy that turns them both timely and refreshing. While “The Lark Ascending” loses a bit of its romantic whimsy, it's unclear if a more fraught interpretation comes from the dancers or Roxas-Dobrish. 

Review: Fifty Years Since its Founding, Ailey II Takes the Spotlight
"John 4:20"

While the company’s featured dancers transform Ailey’s classic works, the night’s magnum opus is “John 4:20,” from new choreographers Baye and Asa. The work begins in the beautiful discomfort of total silence before it erupts. Inspired by the choreographers’ upbringing in New York City, “John 4:20” is a creative take on a school-yard rumble. The Bible verse that inspired the title is about how we seek out connection in inspite of our differences and, onstage, the dancers egg each other on, at once aggressive and silly, and playful and furious. At one point, a nauseating strobe light flash-blinds audiences, lending the on-stage fight a fever-dream quality. Gritty and visceral, the piece still feels distinctly Ailey even as it departs from the more rural settings Ailey is known for to pay homage to the city streets. 

Review: Fifty Years Since its Founding, Ailey II Takes the Spotlight

“John 4:20” is quickly followed by a tonal shift with Ailey II Artistic Director Francesca Harper’s “Luminous.” A warm, nude-toned stage with expertly crafted shadows, “Luminous” literally appears to glow even as it dives into darker parts of American history. The work is both protest art, addressing police brutality and the legacy of violence against Black people, while also celebrating Black joy, community and culture. Harper's cinematic approach to both the dance and the narrative it tells creates one seamless moving picture, capturing the quiet unrest that has settled, blanket-like, over communities of color since America was founded. 

It’s clear that Ailey II’s golden season cements its ability to carry its founder’s legacy, while finding a passion and creativity that sets it apart from its roots. Capturing some of today’s top talent, and nurturing their promise for two-year terms, Ailey II is set to produce some of the most innovative and heartfelt artistry our era of revivals and adaptations has seen. 

Tickets are available now thorugh April 14th. 


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