‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’ at The Kennedy Center

Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater returned to The Kennedy Center last evening with a tribute to its famous six-foot tall Texan director. Ailey died 25 years ago and filling his size-12 shoes has got to be tough job. When Ailey’s star protégée Judith Jamison retired in 2011, Robert Battle became director and is “pushing boundaries,” as one critic put it, by presenting new works in addition to company favorites.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey's Revelations.  Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations.’ Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

You only had to hear the ovation that greeted Battle last night to appreciate this man’s gift for making people happy. In a curtain speech at the start of the 14th annual Southern Company gala benefit that kicked off the six-day engagement at The Kennedy Center, Battle encouraged the audience to “clap more,” and with mention of Ailey’s recent Medal of Freedom award (which Battle accepted on his behalf at the White House), folks began to whoop and holler.

More than any other major dance company, Ailey’s troupe attracts an audience looking for a fun night on the town. These fans – who were out in full force last night – have been conditioned to expect upbeat choreography, a lively show and a rousing finale.

For this writer (and I suspect some longtime Ailey fans), the Washington premiere of Odetta, created during the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. And, dare I say, a new signature piece for the company? Choreographed by Ailey rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, with assistance from dancers Renee Robinson and Michael Jackson, Jr., it’s a poignant piece honoring folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta Holmes, who died in 2008.

“Maya Angelou spoke at her memorial… about Odetta’s courage and strength,” Battle told the black-tie attired audience just before the curtain rose. “I thought more people need to know her story, how she used her voice as a weapon for change.”

Like Ailey’s 1958 Revelations, Rushing’s 2014 Odetta is a spiritual experience. Beauty, power and strength reach out from the stage to grab hold of an audience. The 30-minute piece that pays tribute to the “queen of American folk music” may not serve well as the company’s socko finale number, but is sure has staying power.

As the central figure in Odetta, Hope Boykin can do astonishing movement – head rolls, undulations of the torso, spirals, falls, quick beats. She struts around the stage, tossing her ruffled orange skirt in all directions – terrific costumes by Dante Baylor and fascinating original artwork by Stephen Alcorn.

Boykin writhes in agony to the strains of “Motherless Child,” as she reminds herself of black woman’s sad but proud heritage. Together with Megan Jakel, a redheaded firecracker, the two women lift up their arms in a joyful celebration of “Glory, Glory.” As the curtain falls, Boykin is carried above 10 dancers in a “Freedom Trilogy” finale. Wow!

Christopher Wheeldon’s After The Rain Pas De Deux brought us a glimpse at the phenomenal talent of husband-and-wife dancers Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims. Sweet yet passionate, simple but still full of surprising moves, it’s a dreamy duet performed to a haunting Estonian musical composition that evokes similar feelings.

About as far as you can get from sweet surrender is the eye-catching modern dance, Caught, which caught the audience by surprise with its techno wonders and great lighting design by choreographer David Parsons, executed flawlessly by Howell Binkley. It’s always a crowd pleaser, this time with soloist Kirven Douthit-Boyd seemingly dancing on air.

The opening night program concluded with Revelations (as it does in the remaining six shows). With its floppy hats, a swinging umbrella, synchronized gestures, acrobatic falls, and those tender moments – yes, there are quiet times when you feel the prayers of the dancers – the jazzy ballet is set to a foot-stomping medley of gospel songs.  Folks typically jump to their feet to cheer the dancers after performances of “Run, Sinner Man” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”, but last night shed a light on dancers who are often missed in the headlines. Baltimore’s own Jacqueline Green captured Ailey’s “Wade in the Water” like nobody else.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Sweet Honey in the Rock in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Sweet Honey in the Rock in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations.’ Photo by Christopher Duggan.

You would think that after years of standing ovations the Ailey troupe would become blasé. Not these kids. They love the applause and delight in pleasing their fans. I suspect that it was Ailey himself who first instilled the joie de vivre that has become the company trademark.

Running time: two hours with two 15-minute intermissions.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs different programs at The Kennedy Center through Sunday, February 8, 2015 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW – in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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