My year of concert dance exploration and discovery continues. I had the opportunity to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the first time in person this past weekend. I had seen Revelations on video before, but nothing else from the company’s repertory, and none of the dancers from the current company.
The performance I saw was the final one in a six-day run at the Kennedy Center. Each performance had a different lineup of pieces from the company’s repertory, but all of them included Revelations. While Ailey has premiered some new works this year, such as The Groove to Nobody’s Business, our program was full of classics: Firebird, The Golden Section, Reflections in D, and Revelations. Given that it’s all new to me anyway, I was just excited to see them.
While I found moments of delight in each piece, The Golden Section and Revelations stood out as the strongest.
My [more knowledgeable than me] companions informed me that Firebird was originally choreographed for classical ballet– en pointe– and the role of the Firebird was originated by the legendary ballerina Maria Tallchief. In Ailey’s take, the dancers are barefoot, and the Firebird is played by two men. Set to the Stravinsky symphony of the same name, Firebird seemed to portray a bleak and grey conformist world where the people– attired in grey pajama like closthes– pin their hopes on the brilliant red Firebird, implying a sort of utopian allegory. Initially represented by a red spotlight, it is replaced by the first of the aforementioned male dancers in a bright red unitard (I’m unfortunately not going to be able to attribute any dancers in this writeup because I’m currently on the road and neglected to bring my program with me). I would describe this dancer as explosive and forceful, bringing fire and incredible athleticism to the role. Towards the end of the piece, the first Firebird collapses/dies and though he remained prone on the stage, he was replaced by a second Firebird. This dancer was in contrast, heartbreakingly liquid, with a sort of infinite quality to his movement. Although his role was brief, these few seconds of dancing were one of the program’s highlights. (damn I wish I had my program!), although the rest of the piece didn’t leave as much of an impact on me.
The Golden Section, with choreography by Twyla Tharp and music by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) left me grinning. Tharp’s choreography is unrelentingly ebullient and kinetic… nonstop movement and a display of feats of the human body so endless it’s almost humorous– and in a good way. I’ve recently read chatter on the blogs about how certain dance shows on TV are overly portraying incredible athleticism, glistening abs and rippling muscles. Well, let me tell you honey– before there was SYTYCD, there were the Ailey dancers and Twyla Tharp. Clad only in tight little gold hot pants, the men of Ailey certainly had their rippling, glistening abs out there for us to see and there were no complains on my part. The women weren’t bad either, also clad in scant little gold numbers.
But really, I’m not that shallow. Did I mention the dancing? It’s really hard for me to be able to put the piece into words. I think it’s generally hard to describe Tharp. I have no idea what the whole thing meant, but I know that I liked it, that it transmitted a sunny exuberance, joy, and delight through movement, all visual assets and athletic feats aside. I know that the Golden Section is another term for the Divine Proportion, which is a number used in geometry, architecture and engineering, but am not sure how or if that related to the piece. There is also a description of it on Twyla Tharp’s website that provides some insight. It was nonstop motion, with small groups of dancers coming across the stage, sometimes in unison, sometimes dancing with each other in pairs or groups.
I was a little concerned going into Revelations because I knew it had been on the program every single day and we were attending the final performance of Ailey’s DC engagement. Happily, Revelations felt like one of the freshest things on the program. It is easy to understand why it is such an important part of the Ailey repertoire and of American dance in general. Having seen the video version several times also underscores for me the importance of seeing important works live. It’s a different experience in which I can connect on a more personal level with the piece. The audience loved it, too and rewarded the dancers with an extended standing ovation.
Absolute highlights for me were the gorgeous, sensitively danced duet in Fix Me, Jesus and the darkly infectious Sinner Man. I also loved the quality of movement of the women crossing over the water in Wade In the Water. The hip motion is wonderfully evocative of afro-caribbean dance.
I have heard some criticisms from others who saw this season of Ailey that the company is not as strong as in the past and that they were left underwhelmed. I will say that intellectually I felt that I should have been wowed by Firebird but aside from one brief solo was left feeling ambivalent about it. Although The Golden Section did awe me, I did see that there were a couple parts that could have been better rehearsed, with better unison in places where it seemed that should be happening, and a little cleaner. However, this being my first time seeing Ailey live, I have no past basis for comparison, andI think it should be clear from this writeup that despite any reservations I may have had, I left the concert feeling really happy that I had gone and feeling that I can’t wait to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater again soon.
After the jump, videos of some of the pieces I referenced in this writeup.
This is a sampler of excerpts from Revelations, including the iconic opening part. Fix Me, Jesus is at about 0:52 and Wade in the Water is at 1:48.
Ballet San Jose dancing the classical version of the Firebird suite
Ailey version of the Firebird…. very different take!!
Ailey has its own YouTube channel if you want to explore the company’s repertory further.