More Work From "Blood Memory" Please!


I love this dance company so much. And I love Alvin Ailey’s work in particular. AAADT artistic director Judith Jamison quotes Ailey as having said that his choreography is the result of his “blood memory” of his southern boyhood. He said the greatest works of art are the most personal, come from the deepest-rooted place. Nothing could be more true.

(Above photo of “Revelations;” all photos courtesy of Paul Kolnick.)

So, my own Alvin Ailey season began last Saturday afternoon with Mr. Ailey’s “Night Creature,” one of my favorites and a dance that I would call a combination of ballet, jazz and Afro-Latin / Samba centered on a sweetly spotlight-demanding jazz diva and her man servant, backed by a large ensemble of dancers, and set to Duke Ellington music. The movement was a combination of beautiful ballet — soft, slow, fully extended developped legs, arabesques and partnered lifts; cool jazz hands and rhythmic hip swaying side-together steps; and, yes, Samba! It is so very cool for me as someone who has only very basic ballet training but much more extensive ballroom experience to be able to recognize so many steps!

Near the beginning of the piece, the ensemble circles around the central dancers by doing what are basically Samba voltas (back foot takes a side step, front crosses over and pelvis rotates fully), or even a kind of Salsa Suzie-Q if you know what that is, later, dancers slither forward in sexy, snaky pelvis-undulating cruzado walks, then there are stationary samba walks (feet together, then one foot slides back while the corresponding hip cooly juts upward and outward), side sambas, whisks, everything. It’s so exciting; I just want to scream out, “I can do that!” But of course I can’t — at least I can’t do it anything like those miraculous dancers. If I could, if I could be a real “night creature,” how my dance dreams would be complete! Anyway, I love how this work splendidly blends European Ballet, Afro-Latin Samba, and American Jazz — it’s everything; it’s brilliant.

Second was “Solo,” a shortish piece by choreographer Hans van Manen from 1997, danced to classical Bach. In this piece three men each take turns performing a series of solos, charmingly vying with each other in a kind of ‘who can be the most fast-footed, nimble dancer’ contest, each performing his own staccato interpretation of the very quick-tempo-ed violins. Some solos used a more classical vocabulary and were more poetic, others more of a comical riff on the classical. At times, it would seem that at the beginning of his solo, a man would be playfully taunting the previous dancer by making fun of his routine. This reminded me of a B-Boy showdown, like that I saw in a Tribeca Film Festival film earlier this year. Very fun! At the end, all three men take the stage at the same time and try to outwit / outdance each other. It’s a charming piece, and the classical music and balletic vocabulary is a nice contrast to the jazzy sexiness of “Night Creature.”

The company also premiered “Saddle Up!,” a new comical story-dance by Frederick Earl Mosley, about several ranchhands and their romantic pursuits. The piece begins with a rather innocent-looking new sheriff riding into town on his stick horse, having no idea what awaits him. He “parks” his “horse” and the scene shifts to a wedding he officiates between two doe-eyed young lovers, attended by two sisters — one flirtatious and sultry and donning a bright orange feather boa, which she tries to lasso around various men, the other silently sad but the object of affection of the wedding photographer, who continuously snaps her picture, she smiling, but only briefly and only for his camera. There’s a suggestion of scandal to come when the tossed bouquet is caught by sultry feather boa woman.

After the wedding, the scene shifts to an innocent young woman who is apparently about to be corrupted by a flirtatious womanizing outlaw. New sheriff, however, saves the day after he is victorious in a hilariously acrobatic, laugh-out-loud showdown with said outlaw, which promptly causes the young innocent woman to fall madly in love with her knight in shining armor. She does a beautiful little lyrical dance with the sheriff’s hat, which he has accidentally left behind. When he returns to retrieve it, they skip off together into the sunset, holding hands. Aww :)

The rest of the scenes consist of a lyrical, tenderly-danced first lovers’ quarrel between the newlyweds, and an equally tender courting scene between the photographer and the sad woman. This is followed by a fast-paced, fun, light-hearted scene in which feather boa woman is pursued by a whole bevy of cowhands who try to wow her with their partnering abilities. Lovely lifts and swingy, waltzy dances ensue. It ends with a big square-dance hoedown. It’s a fun, lively piece and the dancers are marvelous comical actors.

Still, cute as “Saddle Up!” was, it didn’t hold a candle to the last dance on Saturday’s program, “Revelations.” But I guess it’s unfair to compare anything to Mr. Ailey’s masterpiece. If you haven’t ever seen this dance, if you haven’t ever seen Ailey, if you’ve seen “So You Think You Can Dance” and the other TV shows and are now thinking of going to see a concert dance performance, please please please start with this one! Seriously, it’s everything. It’s about spirituality, redemption, grace, freedom from oppression through religion, it’s a celebration of faith and of life itself. It speaks to everyone because everyone — at least in this country (and now Sir Alastair too 😀 ) is familiar with the black church, with its celebration of life and freedom, with its history and pride and roots in the civil rights movement. Not to sound cheesy and Oprah-ish, but it’s so uplifting. The first time I ever saw it was not long after 9/11 and I was bawling when it ended. For a work created over forty years earlier, to me that’s the definition of timelessness.

It’s funny but my favorite parts of this dance change every few times I see it. The first few times, my favorite was the very end, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” a swingy, very upbeat number involving the whole ensemble dancing in a church setting to a hymnal. Makes you want to get up out of your chair and dance with them, and sometimes, when they do an encore, the audience does! Then my favorite became “Sinner Man” another quick-tempo-ed, but more sober number in which three men run about the stage, frightened, attempting vainly to escape the wrath of God, and in doing so, perform breathtaking jumps, leaps and turns. Then I began to love “Wade in the Water,” the Baptism scene (pictured at the top of this post) in which ladies in glorious white carrying sun umbrellas, men waving two long blue sheets across the stage, and one man flickering small flags about with his arms and rolling his torso as if it was fluid water, all make you feel like you’re at the beach being baptized along with the two young souls onstage. This time, I was blown away by “Fix Me, Jesus,” a slow, beautiful prayer of a pas de deux danced by a man and woman to a slavery spiritual.

The company dances “Revelations” with a great many of their performances; please do try to see it if you never have!

On Sunday, I saw the company premiere of “Firebird,” the version from 1970 by French choreographer Maurice Bejart. Bejart, who recently passed away, was known for taking classical ballets and re-working them using modern dance and just amazing athleticism. His ballets were often male-centered.

Here, the curtains rose to reveal an ensemble of dancers dressed in splotchy gray baggy pants and tops. The coloring of the costumes to me resembled Army fatigues, so, that along with the way the dancers would huddle together in fear, then fall to the ground crouching, crawling toward something they saw far in the distance — safety from an encroaching enemy perhaps — made me think this was a war scene. I later learned that Bejart had intended his “Firebird” to be a kind of salutation to Mao Tse Tung’s Red Army, so perhaps these corps dancers were supposed to be workers. The outfits almost resembled a painter’s garb, now that I think of it. Regardless, the ensemble dancers were downtrodden, the fearful, those in danger. Suddenly, one of them, a man, threw off his drab earthly costume to reveal a bright red body suit; he was their savior. This firebird was danced brilliantly by Clifton Brown (in the picture above), who soared around stage in a series of gorgeous leaps, taking time out here and there to perform more adagio poetic developpes and turns.

The choreography was really interesting to me. The firebird is traditionally female, and here, Bejart’s is male. But his bird is not only powerful, leading the corps to freedom, but is beautiful and delicate and lyrical as well. So the dancer must excel at both the more masculine feats — the grand jetes, the high jumps — and the more lyrical feminine adagio parts, the developpes and arabesques. Brown is such a tall, large-boned man, and it amazes me how soft and delicate and graceful he can be.

Soon, the firebird exhausts his power, dancing his heart out as he does, for the people, and he slowly and tragically dies. The corps is shattered but only momentarily, as, through the aid of another firebird, this one played by equally larger-than-life Jamar Roberts, in an enchanting two-male pas de deux filled with beautiful lifts, the original firebird rises again like a Phoenix.

It’s set to the original Stravinsky music. This was my first time seeing something by Bejart and overall I found it spectacular. There have been all of a bizillion and a half write-ups in NY about this company and, in particular, this piece. Go here for a pretty comprehensive list.

Last on for Sunday was Twyla Tharp’s fast, fun, glittering “Golden Section” from 1983 danced to pulsating David Byrne music, the dancers bedazzling in gold costumes. The movement varies from lyrical ballet to sexy 80s-style body rolls, pelvic-gyrations, partnered “death spirals” the likes of which I’ve seen in Disco / Hustle competitions, and absolute death-defying lifts (a man tossing a woman from afar into the arms of a group of men, a woman running and throwing herself at an unsuspecting man, hoping he’ll catch her). I would be so scared to perform this piece! Jamar Roberts took my breath away with a series of whipping fouette turns with multiple pirouettes thrown in. He blew everyone away actually; he received some major applause for that.

This is Tharp’s Modus Operendi: the combination of classical ballet with other kinds of contemporary dance – social, ballroom, jazz, swing, Latin, disco, whatever the popular dance of the day is. It allows her always to stay fresh, exciting, contemporary and accessible to new audiences.

What I love about this company in general is that they choose to perform choreography like this: pieces that combine different forms of dance that can speak to different generations, but also works that, like Ailey’s, are timeless because they touch your soul, speak fundamentally to the human condition. And the great thing about this company is that they TOUR, so you don’t have to live in NY to see them!!! Go here for their upcoming schedule.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting about those opening performances. I love this company, too and can’t wait to see them- I’m going to my first performance of the season tonight!

  2. Thanks Susan. Have fun tonight!

  3. I’m still on such a high from the performance. Renee Robinson was all attitude in NIght Creature, Graff looked better than I’ve ever seen her in Fix Me Jesus, the whole company was really fabulous but best of all were Clifton Brown and Linda Celeste Sims. Simply could not take my eyes off them whenever either of them were onstage. The only piece I found a little dissapointing was The River. I love it, but feel that it really loses a lot when you take it off point and the only sections that I thought retained most of their power were The Lake section with Linda Celeste & Glenn Allen Simms and Two Cities with Robinson & Brown

  4. I totally agree, Susan! When I get the chance to do another write-up on the other pieces I’ve seen since these two performances, I was going to say just that about The River. I never had a chance to see it performed by ABT, whom Ailey created it for, and I could really see it being so much more beautiful on pointe. I couldn’t understand why they took it off pointe, because I went to one of the post-matinee talks and they said they were going to do something else on pointe (Flowers, maybe?… can’t remember which one, but they said they’re going to do something on pointe later in the season). Plus, Graff has ballet background and she was the one who danced the real ballet parts of The River, so they could have had her dance on pointe. Anyway, I agree — with this company, even when there’s something not completely perfect, I still come away with such a high from the whole experience!

  5. Hi

    Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to see any new work by AAADT when they come through Chicago in April.

  6. I really loved “Night Creature” when I saw it a few years ago with Ailey at City Center. Graf is such an amazing dancer; the rumor is that she auditioned for ABT, but didn’t make it. Racism, being too tall…pick your reason why she didn’t get in. But she is such an amazing dancer! We are so lucky to see her perform onstage. Ailey is truly an amazing company; I have yet to see a bad performance with them. My other favorite Ailey piece (that made me tear up) was “Cry”. Amazing. And of course, “Revelations”, which always seems so fresh, so controlled, and so glorious; the dancers never seem to tire of that piece, even though they perform is soooo many times! It speaks volumes about their professionalism and faithfulness to Ailey’s vision for the piece.

    Like you said, not technically perform, but they always always dance with such joy, emotion, and full-out…how can anyone *not* like them?

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