BWW REVIEW: Alvin Ailey Has Something to Say
So many words are used to describe dance -- whimsical, propulsive, stunning, intricate, precise -- and yet these words feel empty when applied to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre's annual Kennedy Center residency. What Ailey does, perhaps, does not have words.
Artistic Director Robert Battle opened the February 4th program by saying Ailey "is to be seen, but also heard." It is the one speaking out about youth, gun violence, ancestry, love, sex and death -- all themes in works from Darrell Grand Moultrie, Jamar Roberts, Judith Jamison and the late Ailey himself.
Perhaps the reason words defy is because audiences should be listening.
In an auspicious start, Khalia Campbell, in shimmering orange with just a spotlight and the sounds of "Lift Every Voice and Sing", sets high expectations in an excerpt of Moultrie's "Ounce of Faith." The piece is dedicated to every teacher that's ever changed a student's life, and a tribute to the experience of so many of the company's dancers.
A restaging of "A Case of You," Jamison's 2005 duet, slinks on stage in silence before Diana Krall purrs the Joni Mitchell hit with the same sensuality as the dance. The strength and trust Jacqueline Green and Roberts' display in a series of lifts is the same as what occurs in a relationship at its best and leaves audiences longing.
The mood shifts with Roberts' "Ode" -- a meditation on gun violence set to Don Pullen's haunting "Suite (Sweet) Malcom (Part 1: Memories and Gunshots)." White pants and bare chests make the human body the costume. Long shadows evoke night terrors after Ferguson, or any community that's lost a son. Interlaced arms and perfect synchronicity connects the male ensemble in a wave-like sadness.
If "Ode" is one way Ailey dedicates itself to the American story, "Revelations" is another. The three-part classic is some of the best ensemble work ever created and the current casting of "Sinnerman" is breathless in its intensity. The addition of local youth dancers to "Wade in the Water" breathes literal life into the work. Sixty years since its debut, its themes -- family, religion, truth, freedom-- are as resonate as ever.
Though the glory of "Revelations" is well known, this is not a beginner's show: if you don't know Ailey, you won't know this. Not as it should be known. But don't let that be a roadblock to experiencing the excitement found in stretching the boundaries of what dance can be.
The reality is Alvin Ailey doesn't need fancy sets or 100 dancers in a chorus line to capture the audience. The emotive imagining of real life is enough. When it does offer something surreal -- a lift or a jump that hangs suspended -- audiences gasp as they would if they saw someone truly take off in flight. In such a moment, it's inevitable words would defy.
Alvin Ailey's Kennedy Center residency runs Feb 4-9th. Tickets begin at $49.99.