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Spiritual elegance: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

High Art, Human Art
By Mae G. Banner

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Proctor’s 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 the moves.

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 and ecstasy.

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 working.

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 thighs.

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.


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