Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Dance, Macro to Micro

Are You in Your Feelings?, photo by Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center

Choreographer Kyle Abraham is completely relaxed in his working process, picking and choosing small gestures that ground his dances. One of the most memorable moves in Kyle Abraham’s new dance, Are You in Your Feelings?, is a rhythmic paddling of arms, a kind of relaxed speed walking thing, repeated for a spell by a group of women. It’s so relatable that I found myself rocking my arms while walking recently, smiling at the thought. While this penchant for quoting everyday intriguingly relates him to the Judson movement, he braids in bravura passages to create a unique, completely contemporary language.

This premiere for the Ailey company during its month-long City Center run uses soul, R&B, and hip-hop music. The sections of dance, to 11 songs, are connected by casual banter and flirtatious interactions among the dancers. Abraham’s style flows like silk, enhanced by the performers’ gossamer bomber jackets and loose pants by Karen Young. Certain steps evoked classic Ailey, such as a woman standing on a man’s knee, as in Revelations. Humor threads throughout—knees knocking, duck walks, remarks like “she pulled a me on me!” The recurring theme of courtship and its pitfalls set the tone, with sidebars including two men finding affection but hiding it due to societal pressure, and gender bonding.

A women’s section to “I’ll Call You Back” contained the infectious arm paddling, plus lots of hypnotic subtle upper body work. Other songs included a remix of “I Only Have Eyes for You” and Lauryn Hill’s “Forgive Them Father.” The set, uncredited, is a simple but striking arc of neon, with lighting by Dan Scully. Are You in Your Feelings? feels like a coda to An Untitled Love at BAM last February—both pop culture slices of daily life. The Ailey dancers look fantastic and at home in Abraham’s choreography, which is growing into an admirable body of work danced by his own group and major companies.

On a program of “new” work, Ailey also performed Duet, by Paul Taylor (from 1964)—a brief, gem-like kinetic puzzle in which no movement is wasted. In the opening pose, the pair resembles a perfect modern sculpture, Renaldo Maurice hovering over a seated Jacquelin Harris, their arms forming an oval. Courtly, with clockwork precision, every pose is picture perfect. (The choice of repertory is also a reminder of Artistic Director Robert Battle’s choreographic lineage; he danced and choreographed with David Parsons’ company for many year, and Parsons was once a Taylor dancer.) Another old new work, Survivors, depicted Nelson Mandela's jailing and his wife Winnie's taking the mantle. To an intense drum track and score by Max Roach and Peter Phillips, this work—originally from 1986, created by Ailey and Mary Barnett—showed how Ailey's style was classical jazz, with its four compass points and boxy arms.

Jamar Roberts’ premiere, In a Sentimental Mood, showcased Courtney Celeste Spears and Christopher R. Wilson as a couple in a fraying relationship, reliving romantic memories. The two dancers wrung fervent emotion from the expressionistic, albeit mostly upright, movement, set to Duke Ellington and Rafiq Bhatia. The design, also by Roberts—a sparsely furnished, traditional living room and street clothes—veered to the literal in this bittersweet work.

Rivulets. Photo: Maria Baranova

Tere O'Connor at Baryshnikov Arts Center

On a completely different scale, the Baryshnikov Arts Center presented the premiere of Rivulets by Tere O’Connor, a comprehensively conceived work of art bursting with his vision. Audience members sit on two sides of the stage close enough to touch the eight dancers; benches line the other two sides where non-active dancers wait to re-enter. The opening tableau is a bit of an anomaly within the piece; from two seated dancers trail chains of others, descending to the floor. Over a densely packed hour, the performers coalesce at the center, expanding outward, or pair off for unique duets. There are quirky bits, like monster hands and low-angled arms, that intersperse with more lyrical, space-eating steps. 

I was close enough to count stitches on their terrific, primarily green and blue-hued costumes by Reid Bartelme, which included first layers of one-piece tights and trunks that appeared to be knitted as a single piece, swingy outer garments, and square silver hardware that added some jewelry-like flairO'Connor's score for the piece—a melange of piano, synth, and ambient—fulfilled its presumable mission to provide background sound and texture. 

With its theatricality, extensive production elements, and superhero dancers, Ailey represents the maximal possibilities of dance. Viewers whoop, clap, and scream at the top of their lungs in curtain calls (and sometimes during dances). By contrast, BAC’s presentation of Rivulets is the polar opposite—serene, at moments, intimate, literally within reach, and well-crafted, technically challenging, and incredibly rich, choreographically. In a given week in the city, what fortune to see such range.

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