Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ailey—Celebrating Matthew Rushing, and 3 Premieres

Aszure Barton's LIFT. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Ailey is like a big ocean liner, steaming along, impervious to swells, waves, sharks, and other crazy things in the water. Likewise, it's so big that it's not easy for one person to change its course, even if that person is Artistic Director Robert Battle. But the effects of his hand on the wheel can finally be felt after a couple of years. The Dec 22 evening program featured three new works, and not a revelation to be had (repertory-wise, that is). It included Wayne McGregor's Chroma, Aszure Barton's LIFT, and a classic from Bill T. Jones, an excerpt from D-Man in the Water.

LIFT checks off pretty much every item on a theoretical "Ailey commission wish list." Dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (by Burke Brown). Rhythmic drumming akin at times to a pulse (by Curtis Macdonald). Shirtless men whose muscles gleam in the (see #1). Women dressed in beautiful halter dresses with rippling fringed skirts (by Fritz Masten). Everyone in gold chokers. Large group sections of hopping, like a show of strength in a celebratory tribe, a refrain of which ends the piece. Various sections of shifting tempo and dynamics, from [previous item] to a unusual deliberate duet by Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts in which they cross the stage while continuously touching. While Barton doesn't create many connected dance sentences, she has a good sense for what provides maximum dramatic effect. Add to this the stunning visual impact that this beautiful company possesses, and the result is affecting and powerful.
Home, by Rennie Harris. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Chroma, originally done in 2006 but new to Ailey, is quite a contrast. McGregor's style—rippling torsos, thwacked splits, everything pushed—adds a new note to the Ailey canon. It  fit the more balletic dancers best, such as Sarah Daley. The music by Jack White and Jody Talbot ranges from visceral rock to more tempered violin + piano. It's rare to see such a completely overhauled set at Ailey: John Pawson designed a white box with curved seams to eliminate sharp corners, and a punched-out rectangle to provide most entrances and exits. Lucy Carter's lighting design shows just how far white can be pushed, from subtle warm gradations to eerie ice blue. The multi-hued unisex camisole and trunk costumes by Moritz Junge worked better for the women; the spaghetti straps looked too delicate on the men.

Bill T. Jones' D-Man premiered on his own company in 1989, but this tribute to then-company member Demian Acquavella, who died of AIDS, has retained as much vibrance and freshness as its Mendelssohn score. The cast showcased the high energy Kanji Segawa, who I hadn't yet seen so prominently featured. The only drawback is that Jones' own company remounted the piece recently at the Joyce, diluting the impact of its remounting after so many years.

On December 17, company veteran Matthew Rushing was celebrated in two of the company's keystones, Grace and Revelations, plus a medley of excerpts from Pas de Duke, Love Songs (both choreographed by Ailey), and Home. We were assured in a pre-show speech (by either Judith Jamison or Robert Battle—were two speakers necessary?) that Rushing isn't retiring, that he's simply being honored. And deservedly. No one has a finer internal acceleromater, which leads to a great economy of movement, nor greater precision, nor inner drive. Even what might be construed as a flaw—not "selling it" to the audience by smiling or making constant eye contact—comes across as humility. With this in mind, Rushing looks least natural in Pas de Duke, with its Vegas showboating and shiny costumes, and most comfortable outwardly expressing inner emotion in Love Songs to Donny Hathaway's gorgeous rendition of "A Song For You." 

As one of many men in Ron Brown's Grace, he looked like a man setting to some serious work, and along the way discovering wonder and moments of, well, grace. In Rennie Harris' Home, Rushing read as the 16-year-old he was when he started with Ailey, skipping and strutting in circles around the cast. A lovely bonus came in Revelations—the recently retired Renee Robinson guest cameo'd as the woman with parasol. It was one instance during the evening when spontaneous applause wasn't directed at Rushing, and proved the loyal Ailey audiences take pride in treating the dancers like family.

No comments: