More than any other major dance company, the world famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater attracts an audience looking for a fun night on the town. These fans – who were out in full force last night at Baltimore’s newly refurbished Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric – have been conditioned to expect upbeat choreography, a lively show and a rousing finale.
“Charm City” certainly got that and more.
Most dance audiences are content with the usual outlets for expressing appreciation: applause, bravos and an occasional demand for an encore. Fans of the famous Ailey troupe, however, are unique. They whoop it up like nobody else.
Maybe it’s the pop-concert ambiance of an Ailey performance, or the rich gospel heritage it calls upon, or maybe just the gut-wrenching fervor and physicality of the dancing – but what ever the reason – Ailey’s fans are as loud as they are loyal. They even cheer for the, “Turn off cell phone!” announcements before the curtain rises.
The applause grew louder as the Lyric’s curtain opened with a group of dancers hovered together in a semi-darkness with only the sound of percussion. “Home,” choreographed by Rennie Harris as a tribute to World AIDS Day, builds off the choreographer’s keen knowledge of hip-hop dancing to create a piece that is both explosive and introspective. While “Home” is a group piece with only one breakaway male dancer, our eyes were riveted towards the tallest female dancer in the group. Alicia Graf Mack soars in this piece and pulls off every street dance move with perfection. Kudos to Lighting designer Stephen Arnold for following the non-stop action on stage without missing a beat. The piece also serves as a terrific bookend to the “Revelations” finale, both works celebrating the human spirit.
The second act brought even more cheers when tall, lithe Yannick Lebrun dazzled us in the solo, “Takademe,” created by Artistic Director Robert Battle and set to scat music by Shelia Chandra. This newcomer from Cayenne, French Guiana can do astonishing movement – sky-high leaps, African-inspired undulations of the torso, head rolls, spirals, falls, and quick beats.
The solo was followed by six more Ailey “hunks” in “The Hunt,” also by Battle but less impressive than his later work “IN/SIDE,” performed Tuesday evening by Kirven James Boyd whose body writhed every which way to the sultry singing of Nina Simone.
As for “Revelations,” the capacity crowd had no intention of allowing the dancers offstage without an encore. After a half dozen standing ovations, the troupe obliged with an effortless repeat of its signature, which again brought the capacity audience to its feet.
It’s easy to see why Ailey’s company has such broad appeal and attracts such unusually large crowds – at least by modern dance standards. Ailey dancers are fresh, athletic, vibrant and honest – you just can’t fake the soulful movements of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” featuring Baltimore’s rising star Jacqueline Reed, or the uplifting reaches that accompany “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
Critics tend to put Ailey’s company down by saying its material – a fusion of modern dance, ballet, hip-hop and jazz – has more to do with Broadway than with high art. Even those critics would have to agree, though, that Ailey’s opener in Baltimore was filled with sheer theatrical excitement.
And for those skeptics who worriedthat the company would fail after Alvin Ailey’s death in 1986 or Judith Jamison’s long reign that followed or Robert Battle will have a tough time carrying the torch, Baltimore declared last night very clearly, “Hail Ailey!”
Running Time: Two hours with two intermissions, and least one encore.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs tonight at 7:30 PM at the The Patricia and Arthur Model Performing Arts Center at The Lyric – 140 West Mount Royal Avenue, in Baltimore. For tickets, call (410) 547-SEAT, (202) 397-SEAT, or (703) 573-SEAT, or purchase them online. If you miss Ailey in Baltimore, catch the company at The Kennedy Center in February.
Carolyn Kelemen interviews local dancer Alicia Graf Mack.