Saturday, January 28, 2012

Embracing the Duality of Ailey, 12/22/08

Alvin Ailey at City Center

Matthew Rushing
If you’ve been hibernating in a cave, here’s some good news: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (Don’t ask about the bad news. Just go back in the cave, fast.) You can only tip your hat to the juggernaut they’ve become, what with street namings, Barbie dolls, guesting on Dancing with the Stars, world tour dates, Oprah headlining their gala, and more. After all, at heart, Ailey’s style has wide appeal, but with its pedigreed modern dance roots, it is hardly akin to the slick stuff often seen on So You Think You Can Dance.
At a recent performance, I was pleased to see the crowd, but somewhat dismayed when they erupted in applause at every split, leap, or turn of moderate difficulty. Accomplishments should be acknowledged, but it felt somewhat self-congratulatory. Back and forth I go, simultaneously gleeful at the company’s popularity for the sake of dance and the fantastic company, and a bit chagrined at the abject commercialism. But you can’t argue with success.
That duality might sum up Ailey’s oeuvre in a nutshell. He produced some gorgeous, moving work, and then he made some less compelling stuff sometimes weighed down by dated-feeling costumes or music. There is no denying his contribution to modern dance, but the flatness elicited when watching some revivals make me constantly reassess his body of work and his dance legacy.
I recently caught a program to live music, always a treat, especially when it’s the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The River is a great technical challenge. Its vocabulary tends toward the balletic, with endless arabesques and developpes and turns. The dancers sometimes seem caught between tending to the technique, or softening it up with a more relaxed attitude. When the latter happens, it comes across on the uncomfortable side, the way pop standard songs sound when opera singers perform them. But the quartet for men, in possibly the most difficult section, looked crisp and tight because they seemed to embrace the technique fully.
A dances-to-Ellington medley followed, featuring excerpts of several works by Ailey, plus Talley Beatty and Louis Falco. This highlight reel was a good opportunity to showcase the company’s deep talent. Linda Celeste Sims combines super-polished technique with star power; it was easy to forget how petite she is when she was onstage in a Pas de Duke solo, radiating to every corner of the hall. And when she dances with the superb Clifton Brown, as she did in Falco’s Caravan, there is no better pairing. My favorite excerpt was from Three Black Kings, with Matthew Rushing in the lead role. His finesse is exemplary and yet so powerfully delineated, and contrasts strongly with the attack in the big stuff. A portion of the jazzy The Mooche showed Constance Stamatiou’s allure as a slink-hipped diva surrounded by top-hatted men.
There’s a reason Revelations is on a majority of the programs. It remains Ailey’s finest work — structured beautifully, great dynamic range, affecting spiritual music, many signature roles — you name it. I imagine it’s like boot camp for company members, and they seem most relaxed and individually personable in this work. The live music augments it immensely as the usual recording is pretty shrill, and even watching it for the nth time, its riches are appreciated. There is a reason it is the standard bearer for the company, which continues its season through January 4.
Photo of Matthew Rushing by Andrew Eccles.

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