Feed your soul, feast your eyes: Alvin Ailey is in town

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Revelations April 23 – 28 at Cal Performances. Photo: Andrew Eccles.

The almighty power of contemporary dance is alive and kicking in Berkeley through April 28, after which the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will pack up their four, richly textured programs and hoof it to the next tour stop.

Until then, it’s “get thee to the church of alpha men and women” in Zellerbach Hall. Feed your soul, feast your eyes and raise your inner flag (no matter how tattered) of patriotism. Artistic Director Robert Battle’s company sprang to life on American soil in 1958 and 55 hinge-bending, lateral-leaning, gravity-defying years later, the jubilee shows no signs of abating.

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Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing Revelations. Photo: Andrew Eccles

Now in his sophomore year as director, Battle has held aloft the legacy he inherited with assurance. Blessed with selection by his predecessor, Judith Jamison, who led the company for 21 years after Alvin Ailey’s death in 1989, Tuesday night’s performance proved Battle has ushered in the next-generation Ailey dancer while remaining true to the company’s blood lines.

Surprisingly, Another Night, a Bay Area premiere choreographed by the dance industry’s so-hot-you-can’t-touch-his-calendar Kyle Abraham, began the evening on a safe, seen-this-before note. Jacqueline Green’s opening solo — a whip-whirling, smoke-dispersing dervish — set the stage for the kind of dancing one expects of Ailey: non-stop, incendiary acrobatics with bristling, sensual undertones. Abraham is capable of bringing urban edginess to his work: here, he stays on less-rugged terrain.

Which is not to say the dancers, in jelly-bean-toned costumes by Naoko Nagata, aren’t magnificent. After relinquishing his casually carried bag of chips, Renaldo Gardner’s brief, crisp solo is a stunner and the ensemble’s easy grasp of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia (performed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) is nuanced throughout.

Although Battle referred to Strange Humors and In/Side, the program works he choreographed, as “small,” there was nothing diminutive about their breadth or vigor. Gardner and Michael Francis McBride, caught in a diagonal light shaft, waged a savage rite-of-passage in the first of Battle’s two pieces. Like brothers, or at other moments, enemy combatants, their gaping mouths and synchronized, pumping torsos beat a tribal drum according to contemporary rhythms.

In/Side began at the opposite end of the movement spectrum and hinted at Battle’s considerable choreographic tastes and how that might lead the company to ground-breaking territory. Samuel Lee Roberts appeared as injured bird or tortured beast. His back turned for over half the solo, Roberts clung to recovery; rolling in madman circles, standing upright in dignified, Nureyev-like B-plus position, and spinning as if wind-swept, reflecting the music’s leaf-tossed lyrics.

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Samuel Lee Roberts of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs In/Side. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Between Battle’s offerings, Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort represented AADT’s courageous foray onto “foreign” ground. Choreographed in 1991 for his Nederlands Dans Theater, Kylian’s sexual suggestiveness was obvious, but illuminated by masterful casting and the dancers’ visceral undercurrents. After the cleverness of designer/costumer Joke Visser’s, fencing foils and free-wheeling ball gowns, Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims pounded through harsh and hardened embrace; stripped nearly to the flesh and attracted by glittery, magnetic force. In contrast, Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts were liquid, seamless sexuality. Our voyeuristic plate was full, but Akua Noni Parker and Antonio Douthit piled on dessert; a crackling energy passing between them, when not entwined or leveraged in partnered passion.

Unbelievably — and joyfully, for those of us who have watched this company nearly from its birth — the grand old lady of the evening was “Revelations.” Fifty-three years after a dancer held high costumer Ves Harper’s enormous, skirted-umbrella, Ailey’s signature work is rarely, if ever, bested.

When the golden cluster of dancers melted like butter, plié-ing (bending) deeply and tilting to the right in the work’s opening moments, it was worship time. From slow, floor-bound descents to arms, reaching upwards only to fracture and fall open, the company bit into their founding father’s pain-struck, love-living ancestry.

Longtime company member Hope Boykin, although not in a major role, mustn’t escape mention because in her body, the Ailey repertory finds no better interpreter. There’s solidity, musicality and humanity in her slightest step or gesture. Briana Reed’s expressive performance was notable, as were the ensemble’s velvety strides in “Processional/Honor, Honor” and the sheer, unapologetic brawn of the male trio in “Sinner Man.”

Inheriting a legacy could have anchored Battle and his dancers into a slow, careful decline. Instead, the Ailey company and their young leader inscribe the stories and tall tales of the Ailey future while elegantly commanding their founder’s position in dance history.

Related:
Alvin Ailey’s artistic director: Expanding dancers’ prowess [03.12.12]
First time sailors take to the water, conquer many fears [07.01.11]

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events. 

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