Alvin Ailey show brings flashes of the past, and thoughts about the company's future

The dance troupe's signature piece, 'Revelations,' is in its 50th year and touring the country with great success. But to move forward, the company needs to broaden its repertoire.

The dance troupe's signature piece, 'Revelations,' is in its 50th year and touring the country with great success. But to move forward, the company needs to broaden its repertoire.

While watching dances there are times when memories intrude insistently if not always accurately, reminding you of what was seen before and coloring your vision of the present. Such was the case as I watched “Revelations,” the eternal masterpiece created by Alvin Ailey in 1960, and performed at the 5th Avenue Theatre this past weekend (March 25-27) by the company he created in 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Sitting in the audience prior to the curtain going up for “Revelations,” the anticipation in the house was palpable, as if some sacred event was about to unfold on the holy ground of the theater’s stage. This is the impact the dance has on its viewers. There is special reverence for a work that in its three segments set to a song-score of 10 traditional spirituals (profoundly moving all on their own) evokes the African-American experience in our country.

I have seen “Revelations” performed many times over the years, but it imprinted itself on me in the late 1960s, when I must have seen it a dozen times or more, sometimes with a live chorus. I had not been to an Ailey company concert for some time and as the dance unfolded before my eyes and I witnessed this generation of performers, I also had a profound response as my mind and my body remembered those seen in the past.

Here was the young Dudley Williams of many years ago performing the beautiful solo “I Wanna Be Ready,” and as he twisted and turned and rose and fell on stage, so did I in my seat, almost involuntarily. There was the majestic Consuelo Atlas, sadly passed on, and the tall and elegant Kelvin Rotardier, intimate partners in the exquisite duet, “Fix Me, Jesus.”

The current company does the work justice as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. This is a hard thing to do as the piece appears on almost every program in home seasons and on-tour, and these dancers are far removed from the time in which the work was created and originally performed. If one were seeing the company for the first time there would be ample reason to be thrilled with its performance.

Yet there were things missing for me that made “Revelations” such a special experience in those early years — the authority and presence of the dancers, and their sense of communitas in performance. Many of them had personally experienced what the dance was meant to evoke, and though they might not have had the technical fluency of today’s company, they had a certain gravitas and sensuality. They punctuated their movement, giving it nuance, character and fullness.

“Revelations” is the signature piece of the Ailey company, and among the most revered and viewed of all American concert dances. Over the years the company seems to have wanted to perform it less often, but without success in doing so. Under its new artistic director Robert Battle (succeeding current artistic director Judith Jamison this July) I hope the troupe develops new repertoire that allows for programs that don’t include “Revelations.” This masterwork has been present in the great majority of the Ailey company performances for the past 50 years. Can the company grow and prosper if it does so for the next 50?

I went to the concert not to see “Revelations” but because of my interest in the work of Ronald K. Brown, a choreographer who was considered by many as a strong candidate to succeed Jamison but chose to opt out of the running for the job. His “Dancing Spirit” for nine performers was created in 2009 as a tribute to Jamison, a former star dancer with the company. The lead male and female are said to represent Jamison and Ailey, the others those who have followed in their paths.

It opens with a striking diagonal procession led by Renee Robinson, with one dancer leaving the stage as another enters. There follows a series of movement segments suggesting a ritual, perhaps one of passage, very reminiscent of those in African-influenced religions such as Candomble from Brazil, or Cuban Santeria.

Here and there one sees some clever riffs on “Revelations” itself, and there is some lovely dancing by Glenn Allen Sims as the Ailey figure, but particularly by the tall and strongly built Yannick Lebrun, who of all the dancers best evoked the vigor and multidimensionality of African dance.

I was most impressed by Brown’s use of a pared down vocabulary often repeating movement phrases, sometimes with subtle shades of difference so that you begin to see them in new ways as the dance progresses.

The collage score combines Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis with Radiohead and War. Going from one to another makes for a jarring progression at times, but one soon enough gets carried away by the fullness of the movement and the drive of the music.

The Ailey performance opened with “Uptown,” a work also from 2009 by former company member Matthew Rushing. It is an exposition in nine segments on the Harlem Renaissance through spoken word, photographic slides, and dances. This earnest but creaky work, more a lecture demonstration than a concert performance, might have found a better home in a high school or college than on the stage of the 5th Avenue.  

The narrator/guide was a quite credible Amos J. Machanic, Jr., whose light and lithe dance moves brightened this work, as did his full-out dancing in “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” the concluding section of “Revelations.”

The written program included extensive notes on the sources of period music for “Uptown.” The same could not be said for the magnificent singing of the spirituals in “Revelations.” We get credits for the arrangements but none for the vocalists.

The 2010-11 Ailey season celebrates the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “Revelations” at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City. A short film on the dance was commissioned by the company for the occasion and was shown on-stage immediately prior to its live performance. It might have been better used in the lobby on video monitors, as the dance ably speaks for itself.  

However, thankful for small favors we get a brief glimpse of Alvin Ailey himself performing in a segment of “Revelations” done for a television show in the 1960s. Even on blurry black and white film, with his incredible undulating torso you could see what a wonderful dancer he was.


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