Alvin Ailey: New Dances and New Productions

Alvin Ailey season is upon us! I attended two performances over the weekend and, of course, they made my weekend. I’m always so happy when I come out of an Alvin Ailey performance. Particularly with their new, 50-dancer Revelations, which I think is only for this year because it marks the dance’s 50th year anniversary. I’ve always thought of this dance as the quintessential American dance, and it’s so stunning seeing the stage completely filled with dancers. For some of the solo sections like “I Wanna Be Ready,” they triple up the number of dancers, and they often use students from the Alvin Ailey School and from the Ailey II company for the larger sections like “Pilgrim of Sorrow” and the “Honor Processional” from “Take Me To the Water.” So, please, if you’re in New York, try to see one of the 50-dancer versions. They’re only showing that production of Revelations on certain dates, so make sure you check the City Center schedule. I hope they consider doing this a few times a season in the future, though, because (expensive as it probably is) it’s really so brilliant.

Also, my new second favorite dance is now Cry. I’ve seen it twice this season, and don’t really know now if I’ve ever seen the whole thing. Maybe I’ve only seen Judith Jamison dance it on video and I’ve seen the individual sections before onstage, never in whole. It was created by Mr. Ailey in 1970 but this is a new production. This year they have three different dancers dancing the three solos. The first solo is set to Alice Coltrane’s “Something About John Coltrane,” and was danced the nights I saw it by Linda Celeste Sims on the first night, and Rachel McLaren on the second. They were equally spellbinding. This section, to me, is very powerful, the movement is very modern, with lots of sharp staccato movements meant to convey strife and longing and fear and a whole host of emotions – along with clever, ironic uses of a towel-like sheet – and it requires very powerful dancers.

The second section, the adagio set to Laura Nyro’s “Been on a Train,” which often nearly brings me to tears, was danced both nights by Constance Stamatiou, who is really growing on me this season. She’s a really beautiful, very “womanly” dancer, and she is really growing to have a great stage presence.

The third section, the more rhythmic African section, set to the Voices of East Harlem’s “Right On, Be Free,” was danced both nights by Briana Reed, who’s always been one of my favorite dancers in the company. She was out of most last season and I’m so glad she’s back. Mr. Ailey dedicated this dance to “all Black women everywhere – especially our mothers.” I love how it begins with a powerful evocation of oppression and ends with a celebration of African roots. I hope they perform it every season.

The two new dances I’ve seen so far (there are many to come in the next few weeks), are Christopher Huggins’s Anoited (which is a world premiere this season), and incoming artistic director Robert Battle’s The Hunt (which is new for Alvin Ailey this season).

The Hunt is great fun! I loved it. I could see that one every night, just like Revelations. All six dancers are men and it depicts, as the name implies, the rituals involved in preparation for a hunt. It conveys how physically and mentally grueling the hunt will be as a test the men’s limits, and it also showcases the athletic power of Ailey’s male dancers. And the music is mad fun! It’s Les Tamours du Bronx, wildly percussive, so much fun! I joked on Twitter that I needed to get it for a workout tape. Seriously!

It’s certainly a male moment in dance! This dance received loads of applause and a full-audience standing ovation. In Revelations, which followed, “Sinner Man” then received huge whoops and hollers from the crowd. As they should have. But the women of Cry deserved a full-audience standing ovation too! Not fair!

Christopher Huggins’s Anoited is really beautiful. Huggins is a former member of Ailey and this dance is a tribute to the leaders of the company, both past and present. The first section is a really lovely duet by Jamar Roberts and Linda Celeste Sims, with the two meant to depict Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison.

Over the music we hear Jamison’s words to Ailey, when he told her he was sick and asked her whether she would take over the company. “And I said, ‘Of course!'” she repeats many times. At the end of the duet, he lies down, and she sadly kneels over his body. These two dancers are perfect to represent Ailey and Jamison. If this company does have a “star” right now it’s Linda Celeste Sims, and Jamar Roberts, with his physicality and stage presence is larger than life.

In the second section, set to more percussive music by Sean Clements, Jamison is joined by four other women known for keeping Ailey’s legacy alive over time: Sylvia Waters (director of Ailey II), Denise Jefferson (director of the Ailey School, who recently passed away), Nasha Thomas Schmitt (director of Ailey’s arts in education program), and Ana Maria Forsythe (director of the Ailey / Fordham BFA program). The women are all dressed in celebratory purple and they dance a rhythmic, high-charged African / modern combo.

In the third and final section, entitled “52 and Counting,” the dancers all come together and are joined by others, all dressed in red. They dance to a fast-paced beat, sometimes in ensemble, and breaking into duets replete with thrilling lifts. It reminded me a bit of the second section of Love Stories, or of Tharp’s The Golden Section and it stood for me as a celebration of some of the more contemporary pieces the company is known for. Amidst all this, the figures of Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison return, and perform another beautiful lift-heavy duet, this time with Roberts dressed in white.

I’ll write more as the season continues. As I said there are many more premieres to come (check out City Center’s website for the schedule). For now, I’m off to a Nutcracker by the Royal Ballet. I love the diversity of dance :)

All photos from AlvinAiley.org. Top photo by Christopher Duggan; all other photos by Paul Kolnik.

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