(Alvin Ailey II in Troy Powell’s The External Knot, photos by Eduardo Patino)
I don’t have much time to write– this week is beyond crazy, but last week I went back for more Alvin Ailey II (Ailey’s studio company) to see their program of repertory favorites, my favorite of which was Troy Powell’s The External Knot. See a video of excerpts from that here.
What I found intriguing about this piece was Mr. Powell’s use of music. He set the dance mainly to Philip Glass (with some Robert Schumann thrown in), to sections of In the Upper Room and Glass Pieces (the section from the latter was from Akhnaten, that fun, bouncy, drum-laden section). I’d only ever seen set to that music Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room and Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces, and I’d only ever seen Balanchine ballets to Schumann, so it was interesting to me to see how another choreographer visualized the music.
The External Knot is the story of this young man who seeks individuality, to set himself apart from the crowd and go off on his own. But there is a certain loneliness in doing that. But then, being a conformist is not very challenging and there ends up being a certain loneliness in being part of a group as well. The movement, along with the Upper Room and Schumann music conveyed that well. Upper Room is one of my favorite pieces — both the dance and the music alone — particularly that middle section where the piano keys sound like raindrops — it’s somehow simultaneously peaceful yet sad. I always envision this solitary person stuck in a cell — either a prison or a mental institution. Then, towards the end, the orchestral music swells and there’s a choral part indicating there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and I then think of the confined person as on a journey toward that light. I’ve often wondered when listening to the music where in the world Tharp got her ideas for the dance, because I don’t see any of that unsettling isolation and confinement in her ballet. But then, that is part of the fun of Tharp — you can often get the unexpected. And then Balanchine has used Schumann to convey madness. But here, that music perfectly suited the theme as the young man dances on his own, kicking up and out, jumping, lunging, reaching, doing a lengthy painful-looking shoulder stand, his legs bent awkwardly in the air, his legs slowly spreading into an arc, then a full split, his body finally rolling over onto to the ground, while the group dances on in the background — either moving in sync as an ensemble, or fragmenting into duos or trios, all movement seeming to express a longing for something.
At one point, the man is very indecisive: he can’t figure out whether to lead, follow, or leave the group. The group follows him, he looks over his shoulder as if to ensure they’re there, then they turn and leave him behind. He seems upset, he follows them, as if to harken them back. When they turn again and come at him, he turns back around, goes on hurredly forward whether they’re behind him or not.
And then in the last section, instead of using the choral music from Upper Room, Powell switches to the exciting, rhythmic Akhnaten, where the dancers perform expansive movements in the background — large bends forward from the waist, big, far-reaching port de bras, while the man jumps, twists and turns up front, seemingly more upbeat, at peace with himself whether he is one with the group or not.