Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ailey—A Different Kind of Revelation

ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson
If there's one person within the Ailey company who represents its soul, it might be Matthew Rushing, who has been with the troupe for 22 years and is now rehearsal director and a guest artist. As a dancer, he is noted for his humility, speed, accuracy, and the gift of parsimonious but deeply meaningful expression. When some dancers try to go big and spin off energy, Rushing seems to focus his energy like a laser beam and direct it precisely where it counts. As a choreographer, he is just beginning; he has made three works for Ailey, and ODETTA—which premiered this season—shows he has a very promising future making dances.

This tribute to the folk singer (embodied in the dance with great strength and nobility by Akua Noni Parker) naturally uses a selection of her songs interspersed with spoken and projected quotations affirming human rights and self-respect. Each song carries a different message, which Rushing elaborates upon. Some of the sections are earnest and forthright, others—"A Hole in the Bucket," in which Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun act out the silly lyrics—exaggerated to the point of slapstick. The men go to war, and put on helmets, to underscore the action. Travis George's flexible set, of a series of lightweight benches with geometric cutouts, is arranged in a number of inventive ways. But on the whole, it's Rushing's choreographic style that propels the work, at times thrillingly. He parlays what would seem right on his own body into a vocabulary for the whole group—fluid phrases with precise gestures that connect directly with what Ailey produced, particularly in Revelations

The penultimate section that takes place downstage shows great skill. Initiated by a soldier going to war under a giant American flag, the dancers enter from the side in a line, holding hands, and shift through compact moves, pulsing and morphing; the group halves and the two parts alternate directions. It's almost as if the tightened spatial parameters were conducive to more creativity. (Earlier, we'd seen iterations of the forward-advancing line—in Hofesh Shechter's Uprising, which begins as the men stride to the apron and hit a passé, which they hold for a good long minute, and in Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women, when 15 women rustle their voluminous skirts as they advance downstage.) Rushing takes the subject matter to heart, and the song's messages resonate anew.
ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson

I recall Uprising (2006) differently from the company's 2008 Fall for Dance appearance, but perhaps it is simply Shechter's volatile, athletic language on Ailey's men instead of his own company. It shows how the Batsheva alum uses darkness and light to control the stage space and the level of drama. Stillness alternates with speed; gravity remains in control, as when the men motor about on all fours. The tongue-in-cheek Misérables finale—a red flag held aloft a pile of men, accompanied by a cheesy smile—put an odd exclamation point on an otherwise serious dance, as if to say, "just kidding!". 

As a bookend, the company's women (and four men) danced Suspended Women (2000). The lavish, Victorian-style dresses (by Christina Giannini) evoke both hyper femininity and its flip side, entrapment. Lines of dancers ebb and flow; there is much darting, skipping, and management of flouncy skirts and hoops. The men enter late in the work to lift and lug the women, doff their jackets to reveal bare chests, and disappear again. Daniel Bernard Roumain's score, using primarily violin and piano, grates at times. And at moments, especially toward the end, Martha Graham's influence can be felt in the urgent stage crossings. Yet the company felt truly at home in Rushing's work. It was an evening without Revelations per se, but with some promising revelations of its own. 

No comments: