Spiritual elegance: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Art, Human Art
Mae G. Banner
Ailey American Dance Theater
Theatre, May 11
If Alvin Ailey had never made another dance, Revelations
would assure his place in history. An illumination of black
American religious experience, Revelations contains
flood and fire, sorrow and ecstasy. There is not a wasted
moment or an extraneous move.
Ailey made the dance in 1960, when his company was just two
years old. Audiences have taken it to their hearts, so much
so that the company, now headed by Judith Jamison, closes
nearly every concert with it, always to rousing cheers and
multiple curtain calls.
That’s how it was at Proctor’s on Tuesday, May 11, when the
Ailey troupe swept through on their 45th anniversary tour.
Revelations brought us to our feet, wishing they would
dance it again. (They did, the next night.)
The wonder of this masterpiece, set to traditional spirituals
sung by a rhythm-infused choir, is that for all its strong
technical base—powerful plies and gut-deep contractions—it
reaches into people’s souls with its undiluted emotions and
stirs their memories of black life in Southern rural communities.
It’s high art and human art with no gap between the dancers
and the audience.
Over the decades, as dancers became sleeker, faster muscle
machines, Revelations was in some danger of becoming
solely a display of technique. Jamison, who once was a memorable
“church lady” shaking her palm leaf fan in the blazing final
section, now runs twice-yearly Revelations seminars
with the dancers to keep them in touch with the history and
feelings that gave birth to the dance, as well as maintaining
They danced it gloriously, a community of souls. In “Fix Me,
Jesus,” Clifton Brown seemed to sprinkle holy water on a contrite
and yearning Wendy White Sasser. He held her steady, balanced
on his thigh, her body angling out precariously.
I’ve always loved the “Water” section, in which lengths of
blue and white cotton become the waves of a river and a raggedy
white umbrella marks the baptismal procession. These props
are looking a little too polished, now, but they still exude
the magic of theatrical creation. The dance’s pelvis-driven
steps and jumps are exciting. The water is gorgeous, all flow
The ecstasy reaches still higher in “I Wanna Be Ready,” danced
by a bare-chested Guillermo Asca. As he strives toward godliness,
falling and rising again, you can see every muscle and rib
Asca’s dance is earth-bound. In contrast, the “Sinner Man”
trio—Jamar Roberts, Antonio Douthit, and Samuel Deshauteurs—leaps
in jagged air-turns amidst the flames of hell.
The church scene was an exuberant finale, a golden Sunday
morning meeting that climaxed with two long diagonal lines
of dancers facing each other, stepping high, while the audience
clapped the off-beat.
The intelligently varied program began with The Winter
in Lisbon (1992), a Saturday night dance if there ever
was one. Choreographed by Billy Wilson, it’s a four-part homage
to 1940s and ’50s bop by Dizzy Gillespie. Flirty party gals
in ruffly skirts shake their booties, while double-jointed
men in bright shirts and porkpie hats cut astounding figures
on the dance floor.
The slow section, “San Sebastian,” is a blues duet for Glenn
A. Sims and Renee Robinson, who is regal in smoky purple with
a ballet skirt slit to the waist to show off her endless legs.
Sims takes her on balletic traveling lifts. They separate
and meet for hot kisses, then part, leaving the man alone
on a darkened stage.
The final section, “Manteca,” all screaming trumpet and congas,
is a full-ensemble sell with shimmying chests and scumbling
shapes. The dancers really connect with the audience, but
always with craft.
Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, we saw two abstract
dances. Elisa Monte’s Treading (1979), a slithery duet
for Sims and Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines, is set to jazzy, insistent
music by Steve Reich. Monte was formerly a Pilobolus dancer
and that experience shows in the wavy-gravy, Yoga-like couplings
she’s devised for these dancers in flesh-colored leotards.
I thought of sea creatures, swamp creatures.
Sims does the cobra shape, standing with his knees bent wide
apart, gathering in the air with his arms. Sayyed-Gaines appears
on the ground behind him and writhes forward between his legs.
Later, he repeats the favor. Moving as if through molasses,
they grip each other in astonishing ways and roll together
in an entire Kama Sutra of possibilities.
Robert Battle’s Juba (2003) makes an angular contrast
to the fluid Treading. Juba is Battle’s first
commission for the Ailey troupe, a career high for the young
choreographer whose two-year-old company recently performed
at Skidmore College. A genderless dance for three men and
a woman, it features Battle’s relentless energy, full of foot-stamping
and thigh-slapping, including people slapping each other’s
The angular, beat-heavy music is commissioned from Battle’s
Juilliard colleague John Mackey. The wide-sleeved blue tunics
and black pants by Mia McSwain conceal the dancers’ bodies,
a rare thing in the Ailey repertory. They suggest East European
folk costumes, and the dance itself is built of lines and
squares, heel and toe moves, and crossing patterns that might
be at home somewhere in the Balkans.
But, this is Battle, so it’s danced with reined-in wildness
and total commitment. Juba is all odd angles and craggy
shapes, sudden stops and starts, even some crack-the-whip
moves that fling four bodies across the stage, holding hands,
arms up all the while. A powerful dance, it looks like nothing
else I’ve seen Ailey do—a strong kick for the company.