Playing in Other Sandboxes

by Martha Sherman

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is so identified with its namesake’s classics that it’s still surprising to spend an evening with the company, and see no dances by Ailey. Yet, the repertoire is now rich with the works of other choreographers. In three that came to AAADT in 2016, Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep,” Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” and Hope Boykin’s “r-Evolution, Dream,” the dancers (and Artistic Director, Robert Battle) have chosen movement and themes that echo Ailey’s vocabulary as well as the dancers’ unquenchable energy. The enduring popularity of the company has not softened their disciplined edges; each piece was danced as if lives depended upon it.

The highlight of the program was “Walking Mad,” a 2001 work originally made for Nederlands Dans Theater. This half-fantastical, half-grounded dance story was performed to Ravel’s “Bolero” as well as an oddly disconnected coda danced to gentle music by Arvo Pärt. The characters in the story ranged from whimsical (especially the Chaplinesque Vernard J. Gilmore who opened the piece, and bubbling, innocent Ghrai DeVore) to painfully serious, increasingly anguished dancers and couples.

Inger also designed the set, making a tall wooden wall into a central character in the tale. Gilmore peeked through the curtain from the stage apron, then opened it to the wall – the community it framed, and clothing detritus scattered on the ground. The dancers moved around and over the wall, through doors that unexpectedly opened and closed, scaling to cross over or fall back. It framed visual jokes, and had many personalities. Almost sentient, the wall protected, trapped, engaged, and embraced, as walls – and communities – do.

On the gentler side of this ‘hood, DeVore was chased by several men-children in red conical party hats, and then chased them in return. Her ups and downs in the hope of being chosen were familiar young hopes. The men rolled flat on the floor, bobbed and hopped in childish tomfoolery, but playfulness made way for pain as the wall cracked in its center to form a tight angle, and Jacqueline Green was trapped at its nexus. As playful as DeVore and her suiters had been, Green flailed to escape her inner demons, trying to beat through or climb over the wall. She pushed and pulled her suitors in dances that were more than courtship, and leaned toward the malevolent.

As the “Bolero” crashed relentlessly on, the wall collapsed and became a platform for much of the company, in hats and trench coats that cloaked their identities, to become a frantic crowd, pounding in parallel beats around a central couple. When the score blared to its powerful close and the stage went black, the audience roared – only to be held back by an eerie light returning, and the Pärt score opening to serenade the anguished couple, Gilmore and Sarah Daley-Perdomo. They were connected but alienated, as she walked over his back, and he lifted her torso so that her legs splayed high into the sky. Theatrical and dramatic, the scene couldn’t quite recover its grip, after the rousing crash of the “Bolero.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in “Deep.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Although “Walking Mad” told the strongest story, all three pieces had their drama. In the evening’s first work, Bigonzetti’s “Deep,” the trio of women who opened the scene – Green, Jacquelin Harris, and Fana Tesfagiorgis – were regal and commanding; the women drove much of the energy of this forceful piece. Their male consorts served them on low squatting legs, all muscle. When the women were lifted, it was as if they had launched or been shot and snapped into place with their partners; pairings were not about tenderness, but about power.

From crisp, strong moves, when the music shifted to an African beat, the same bodies oozed fluidly, curving their chests, then bellies, then legs arching, smooth and sinewy. In a closing image, Harris was on her knees, her arms open and face upraised, as if to receive wisdom, the large troupe behind her in echo. In the bow, the company honored each pair and couple in order; the bows for each work were unique to the piece. Like the final scenes of some story ballets, these bows were like short, satisfying reprises of the work, and a generous way to allow audiences to reward the deserving dancers.

Matthew Rushing and Rachael McLaren in “r-Evolution, Dream.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

The evening’s final work was Hope Boykin’s “r-Evolution, Dream.” with a score by Ali Jackson, and Boykin’s script narrated by Leslie Odom, Jr., whose sonorous voice now rivals James Earl Jones’ in familiarity. The vocal score was half-political, half-poetical, but never quite worked. Like paint on an abstract canvas, groupings of dancers crossed the stage in horizontal waves of color – black, fuchsia, lime green, white. They gobbled up space in long steps and lunges, high legs and wide arms.

These groups of dancers, in their color uniforms, also formed communities, though lines were crossed in multi-colored scenes. Some of the women, in delicate dresses with wide skirts danced as if suburban mothers gossiping over cocktails, while girls in athletic outfits tried out those womanly steps, and gave up, giving way to their own more playful movement.

As conflict emerged in this cacophony of costume colors, the dancers split like the Jets and the Sharks. Mathew Rushing, playing a character based on Martin Luther King, Jr., moved in to make peace, as Odom exhorted the crowd in a voiceover with a final sermon. In response, the dancers joined together, colorful in a rhythmic bobbing line, and pranced in a long diagonal up and off the stage. The curtain call for this piece was also satisfying – dancers bowing by their costume color, separate but connected. Like the two pieces before, this one was about the power in community, shown in the strength and determination of these dancers, the choreographers, and the legacy of the man whose name the company bears. As the curtain fell, they were all still dancing.

Copyright ©2018 by Martha Sherman

“Deep,” “Walking Mad,” “r-Evolution, Dream.” – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
City Center, New York, NY
December 20, 2017

Cover: Rachael McLaren and Chalvar Monteiro in “Walking Mad.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

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