Winding down its North American tour, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed three shows at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre April 15-17. The New York City-based company spends most of each season touring nationally and internationally, finishing with a month of shows at Lincoln Center in June. The Ailey website lists 25 works in the current repertoire—programming varies from night to night, providing a chance for audiences to see different works during a single-city tour stop and for multiple dancers to appear in the same roles on alternate nights. The April 15 performance included two recent Ailey commissions, Matthew Rushing’s Odetta (2014) and Rennie Harris’s Exodus (2015), and concluded with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (1960).
On the evening of April 15, the audience at the Paramount buzzed with an almost electric tingle. The aura of all things Ailey creates excitement in and of itself: spectacular dancing by beautiful dancers in often exceptional choreography, all with international celebrity status. This buzz was amplified by what felt like an eclectic group of dance-goers—the audience consisted of all ages, and races, families, dates, dressed up, dressed down. Applause broke out joyfully over the normally mundane moment of a welcome announcement over the speakers. Artistic director Robert Battle’s pre-show curtain speech conveyed a down-to-earth sense of humor and felt open and personal at the same time (including references to Ezell’s Famous Chicken).
As the name implies, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater carries a tradition of presenting dance with distinctly American cultural sensitivities. Founder Alvin Ailey’s choreography, makes up the base of their repertoire, fortified with new commissions. One such recent work, Rushing’s Odetta, opened the show. A smart programming choice, it clearly modeled the Ailey mission that “celebrates the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage.”
Rushing wove the central theme of Odetta less around the historical person and more around the interaction of her music with her historical time. Naturally, Odetta herself appears in various ways: her disembodied voice in quotations and interviews, her songs, snippets of her personal experiences, projected artwork by Stephen Alcorn, and a dancer to portray her (Hope Boykin showing her generous acting chops). The comedic “There’s a Hole In The Bucket” featuring Rachael McLaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis displayed the simplicity of mostly gestural choreography, with the dancers’ facial expressions perfectly matching the tone of Harry Belafonte’s and Odetta’s vocals. In “Masters of War,” Rushing choreographed a dramatic interlude of soldiers off to fight and women left behind. Successive traveling formations across the stage developed tension toward the “largest” dancing moments of the evening. The male dancers leaping across the stage created an explosive release that continued to build throughout the section. The energy and drama of “War” stood out in relationship to the rest of Odetta, deserving further treatment as its own entity.
Harris’s Exodus showcased the talents of this modern dance company in hip hop choreography. Exodus is hip hop concert dance, crafted for proscenium arch theaters and the technical artistry of stage lighting design. While Harris is known for this in his commissioned works and his choreography for his own company Puremovement, Exodus reached a synergistic pinnacle in its combination of thematic progression, hip hop and modern dance vocabulary, costuming, and dramatic lighting.
The curtain rose upon black space, with intricately textured lighting clustered around center stage. Like Odetta, Exodus began with disembodied voice, at one point stating “my soul belongs to you.” Combined with the opening image of the dancers lying scattered across the stage, and one dancer weeping over another’s limp body, the scene’s imagery evoked the contemporary national news that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Jamar Roberts, tall and elegant, spasmed in slow-motion running, crossing the space diagonally toward the prone, limp body of Matthew Rushing in Hope Boykin’s arms, while the other dancers reached arms hopefully toward the sky. Exodus’s varied dynamics spanned from ultra-slow to fast-paced, fluidly shifting tempos between and within sections. Smoke machines oozed haze onto stage, intensifying shadows and highlighting the dancers as sculptural bodies; this was especially noticeable as the dancers smoothly transitioned from street wear into loose, flowing, white garb. While the Ailey website notes that Exodus “explores the idea of ‘exodus’— from one’s ignorance and conformity—as a necessary step toward enlightenment,” spiritual overtones, like the angel-figure of Roberts crossing to the dying man while tortured souls cried out, were hard to miss.
The evening closed with Ailey’s Revelations, his signature piece. In fact, no matter the performance date, touring Ailey shows usually conclude this way (as do those of the second company, Ailey II). Revelations is The Nutcracker of modern dance, but, without the boon of being restricted to a single holiday season, the dancers never get a break from rehearsing and performing this well-known work. While possibly tedious, frequent rehearsals and performances provide an opportunity for dancers to become comfortable and confident within a piece. The Friday night cast danced confidently and precisely, their steps calibrated for a minimalistic effect. Unfortunately, these subtly danced moments failed to convey both the build-up to and the exaggerated emotions inherently necessary in Ailey’s masterwork. “Wade in the Water” was an especially low-key moment, as was the usually show-stopping male trio “Sinner Man” and the choreographed encore to “Rocka My Soul” that closes the work. In contrast, Jacqueline Green and Roberts in the soulful pas de deux “Fix Me Jesus” and Yannick Lebrun in the sustained solo “I Wanna Be Ready” plumbed new depths; the dancers made these sections their own. In “Fix Me Jesus,” Green’s supple port de bras matched Robert’s long and lean physicality, both breathtakingly well-displayed during a partnered promenade in à la seconde—one of the best moments of the evening.
It is a given that Ailey dancers are athletically and artistically talented, (is water wet?), but the company and its performances are so much greater than just the visuals onstage. The Ailey mission of fostering community is well-served through its touring and presentation of historical works alongside new ones, however, care must be taken lest historical gems become timeworn in contrast to the contemporary pieces. Nevertheless, seeing an Ailey performance live is an experience—a crown jewel of American culture—that all Americans deserve.