Ailey Keeps it Fresh

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is such a cornerstone of American dance that it’s almost impossible to say anything new about the company—so it’s doubly remarkable that the company makes old repertory standbys appear fresh and vibrant. The first of two programs Ailey performed on their Seattle stop included three twentieth century classics—Ailey’s The River (1970), Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters, Part I (1989), and, of course, Ailey’s Revelations (1960). While each work showed its historical moment, none showed the creakings of age. (The other program featured Ronald K. Brown’s Grace and Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, two more recent works, alongside the obligatory Revelations). On top of the incredible energy exuded by the Ailey dancers, Ailey audiences usually exhibit a charged happiness: something akin to a religious revival or maybe a rock concert, especially by the end of the night, when Revelations reaches its joyous climax. Their Seattle opening night (Friday, April 11) was no different.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Yannick Lebrun in Alvin Ailey's The River.  Photo by Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Yannick Lebrun in Alvin Ailey’s The River
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The River was the evening’s most dated piece, with its contemporary ballet aesthetics (originally an ABT premiere) and the recording of the Duke Ellington score landing it firmly in the early 1970s. Still, the dancers managed to imbue the jazz-inflected ballet with infectious energy, smiles, and truly breathtaking technique. And this piece looked hard. River’s choreography was densely populated with every kind of turn imaginable, interspersed with every kind of jump, each move flawlessly tossed off by each member of the company. Megan Jakel outdid herself by blazing through a tightly choreographed turning variation appropriately titled Vortex; the solo’s non-stop pace made it a microcosm of the whole work. At times, the choreography was dizzying enough to be almost tiring, but more lyrical moments, like the final duet between Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, helped soothe the eye—and gave the audience a moment to catch their breath.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Belen Pereyra and Michael Francis McBride in Bill T. Jones' D-Man in the Waters (Part 1) Photo by Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Belen Pereyra and Michael Francis McBride in Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (Part 1)
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Jones’ D-Man in the Waters brimmed with a joy so confident that grief threatened to lurk in every corner, especially because D-Man comes out of the AIDS crisis. Danced to a buoyant Mendelssohn string octet, nothing, not even a few minor key moments of more vulnerable movement, could puncture the tone of the piece. Taken out of its historical context, D-Man is a cousin of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade: a work of pure dance that celebrates the exhilaration of movement with daring leaps, falls, and catches. With historical perspective, suddenly the leaps, falls, and catches take on a more personal meaning. Motifs of support abounded, but not in a heavy-handed way. In a memorable moment, one dancer stood in the middle of four, catching each in turn as they leaned dangerously off-balance. As in River, the dancers’ energy matched their impeccable technique, and they formed a cohesive ensemble.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey's Revelations Photo by Christopher Duggan
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Revelations saw the most performer bobbles, most unfortunately in the moving Fix Me, Jesus duet. The flaws were small, but they were all the more visible after the near-perfection of River and D-Man. Still, Revelations had its transcendent moments where the performers were in accord with music, movement, and audience. Kanji Segawa, Hope Boykin, Demetia Hopkins delivered a sharp, fervent trio in Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel; Samuel Lee Roberts, Sean A. Carmon, and Michael Francis McBride kept one-upping each others’ turns, leaps and extensions in the virtuosic Sinner Man. The true highlight of the night, though, was Marcus Jarrell Willis’ arresting rendition of I Wanna Be Ready. As he crawled, every reach was punctuated by a sharp contraction that articulated his effort and yearning with piercing clarity.

Revelations is one of the great works of twentieth-century American art—it’s rooted in its history, but it still feels so alive, so relatable. The Ailey dancers keep it fresh with their energy (even while they perform it night after night after night), but much of its impact comes from the traditional spirituals and gospel songs. The stylized recordings tell the story of its historical moment, as the Civil Rights movement was gaining speed, but they possess timeless ideas and rhythms that get the audience moving in their seats by the Rocka My Soul finale. Seeing Ailey perform Revelations is something everyone should experience at least once. You leave the theater feeling like there is good in the world, plain and simple. That’s a rare accomplishment for any work of art.

For more information of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, visit its comprehensive website at alvinailey.org.