A guest review by dance critic Laura Bleiberg:
For its diehard fans, a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (at Segerstrom Hall through Sunday) is a spiritual experience, with Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations” the defining “prayer” of every show.
I can’t say I fall into that camp. But as “Revelations” began Tuesday night, the words of one particular spiritual — “There is trouble all over this world” — and the dancers’ emotional depictions of human frailty and burden did cause a shiver. In these times, who wouldn’t agree with that?
This Costa Mesa engagement comes during a significant transition period. Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison, one of the late choreographer’s leading muses and then his hand-picked successor, stepped down last July. She had been one of the dance field’s most successful directors. In partnership with executive director Sharon Luckman, she lifted the troupe to financial security, gave it a multi-million home in midtown Manhattan and raised the dancers’ artistic standards to new heights.
She passed her torch to Robert Battle, a respected choreographer who local audiences might remember from his days with Parsons Dance Company. Battle inherits a healthy organization, primed for a new chapter. We watched for inklings of what Battle has in store.
We didn’t have to wait long. First up was “Arden Court” (1981) by Paul Taylor to a score from William Boyce symphonies. It might seem a strange choice until you recall that both Parsons and Carolyn Adams, whom Battle considers a mentor, were leading dancers with Taylor’s company.
“Arden Court” is an uplifting work, classical feeling, suggesting love and springtime. It’s imagery is straightforward, but it’s complex to execute. It calls for oversized arms that swing and slice, but legs that skim the floor. Flying leaps are contrasted with tiny, lightning-fast steps. It is full of sculptural poses and whimsy, such as when its three ladies swing a somersault while sitting atop their partners’ joined arms. The Ailey dancers are used to larger-than-life athleticism, but not, it seemed, this piece’s lightness, and its little jigs and zigzags. It’s certainly within their reach (see description of next dance). And the Ailey repertory can happily accommodate another masterpiece. Score one point.
The dancers were more in their element for Rennie Harris’ latest hip-hop creation, “Home.” It comes with an unusual pedigree, having been inspired by entries to the “Fight HIV Your Way” contest, which is run by a drug manufacturer. The work begins slowly, with 14 men and women in a group, rocking and shifting balance slowly, like waving sea grass.
Matthew Rushing breaks free from the clump and claps. Wake up, notice me — perhaps he is saying. His intentions are not wholly clear. But as the music picks up energy and speed (songs by Dennis Ferrer and Raphael Xavier) the dancers join Rushing for unison dances of fleet footwork that is unrelenting in its aerobic intensity. Arms are raised, adding a spiritual dimension. A man catches a woman in mid-air and he keeps her from falling. There is hope and unity, until the gently rocking clump re-assembles and, with the force of a vacuum, Rushing is sucked into the middle, disappearing.
Before “Revelations,” we were treated to “Takademe,” a virtuoso solo that Battle made back in 1999. A shirtless Kirven James Boyd twisted and kicked, twirled and undulated in time to Sheila Chandra’s singing of syllables, a hallmark accompaniment for India’s Kathak dancing (the work’s title puts these syllables together in a single word). “Takademe” is brief and explosive excitement. (That’s Battle, at right, in a “Takademe” publicity shot when Battle premiered the piece and was still with Parsons Dance Company. Photo by Lois Greenfield.)
I’ve already mentioned “Revelations.” The piece’s only downside was a little sloppiness and forced acrobatics during “Sinner Man.” But I also noticed that because the company has been performing “Revelations” at every (nearly every?) performance, it has become a part of their skin. It’s comparable to how the Maryinsky ballerinas ripple their arms in “Swan Lake.” No energy is wasted. No superfluous motion is required. Every movement takes its shape with a pinpoint precision. A pleasure to behold.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday – Sunday. $106-$16. (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org. Pre-performance talks with company members one hour before curtain. Matthew Rushing will speak at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
photo: christopher duggan, courtesy of alvin ailey american dance theater