The Groove to Nobody's Business and The Road of the Phoebe Snow

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater recently premiered two new pieces: a brand new work by young choreographer Camille A. Brown called “The Groove to Nobody’s Business,” and a re-staging of Talley Beatty’s 1959 “The Road of the Phoebe Snow.” I loved both of them.

My horrendous near half-hour wait for the blasted downtown A train on Saturday night en route to City Center unfortunately made me all too able to relate to the first piece on that evening’s program, Brown’s “Groove,” a shortish but cute exploration of subway riders’ interactions with each other whilst waiting for a train that takes its damn time.

The cast of characters is a colorful group of urbanites including a few people either coming from or going to work, a be-suited man with his face buried in a newspaper, a pair of young lovers at first trying to make out then getting into a quarrel, and several just everyday street people, at first waiting endlessly on a subway platform, then eventually on the bumpy train. The piece begins with a young man in dressed-down corporate attire (button-down shirt, tie, and dress pants) going a bit nutty over the wait (he’s been on the platform the longest). He does a little spastic dance, then with an angry huff plops down briefly on a bench, annoying another business man, this one the fully-suited man trying to read his newspaper. Several others walk cooly and slowly from the wings to the bench, their torsoes cartoonishly jutting way out in front of their legs in a way that reminded me of a cross between Fat Albert and The Triplets of Belleville. Eventually these others begin to mess about with each other, ‘waiting forever guy’ gets up to do another jig of annoyance, and ‘newspaper guy’ who can’t get no peace, jumps up and performs a series of rather beautiful turns then high jumps in bent-kneed attitude as if to say “could everyone please leave me alone!” At times, the whole group gets up to stand at the platform’s edge and peer down the tunnel searching for a nonexistant train. The ironic upshot is that when the train does finally arrive, poor ‘waiting forever guy’ is doing his spastic dance of frustration so frantically that he ends up missing it.

Music, by Ray Charles and new composer Brandon McCune, provides the perfect tempo. I should know. I was once on a West Coast Swing team. My coach decided that the ideal music to show off our lovely rhythmic versatility would be a combination of Charles’s slow, cool “Night And Day” and the insanely fast-paced “All Night Long,” the latter of which was used here. My coach overlooked the fact that we were a bunch of amateurs. When the music switched to the second tune, far from looking like sexy cool west coast swingers, we looked like gerbils on Speed. We didn’t place so well needless to say… Anyway, here that music gave the dancers the ideal tempo for their crazed fast ‘flipping out’ moves, and served as an excellent counterpoint to the long, slow wait. Overall, the dance was cute and comical and, to someone who used to live in Queens and was reliant on the evil N (Never) and R (Rarely) trains and who actually once calculated the time lost over the course of a year to standing on a subway platform — a number of days — it was very relatable.

“The Road of the Phoebe Snow,” is much more sobering, but brilliant. “The Phoebe Snow” refers to a train line on the Erie Lackawana Railroad and is, according to legend anyway, named after an uppity, wealthy female patron who used to frequent that line and would look down on the passing countryside with disdain. The piece has a very West Side Story feel to it, and is about the relationships between the young have-nots who lived near those tracks. It centers on two couples, one innocent and in love, the other more mature, their relationship more composed of seduction and sex turned into anger.

The choreography is just so superb, it made me realize what is missing in a lot of contemporary work. At the beginning, Clifton Brown (dancing the part of the youthful innocent lover) does a series of whipping fouette turns, but once every two or three turns, where a few multiples pirouettes would normally be thrown in, instead he kind of bounces around on one leg in a full circle. It looks very young and excited and full of the kind of cool bravado a youth from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks would display. Both couples perform a series of lifts, but the first pair’s are grand, sweeping, high-over-the-head ones as if to show their being in love, whereas the second couple’s are full of brutal sexuality, at times the woman lifting one leg into the splits and resting it on the man’s shoulder, he dragging her across the floor. Instead of lifts just thrown in haphazardly or for spectacular effect, here they have a specific point; all movements are used to illustrate the characters’ actions and they’re different depending on the characters’ personalities and relationships.

The fight scenes are well orchestrated too. Later, in one of the innocent-young-love duets, a former beau of the woman watches with jealously, seething. Eventually he fights her new lover, and she is prevented by the old boyfriend’s gang from helping her new love while he is beaten. Then, as she is attacked by her ex and his cohorts, others look on, avoiding getting involved. It’s sad but authentic, and the story is told thoroughly through the movement, so that minimal “acting” in the traditional sense is required, though the Ailey dancers are all excellent at both. All four leads here — Clifton Brown, Linda Celeste Sims, Glenn Allen Sims, and Briana Reed (who, of the women in particular, is blowing me away this season) gave poignant, moving performances. I love this piece; its subject matter, emotional depth, and compelling choreography is perfect for Ailey and I’m glad they’ve brought it back into the rep.

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