Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at The Kennedy Center

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is looking as strong and beautiful as ever in its annual February visit to The Kennedy Center Opera House. Now in his sixth year as artistic director of the company Alvin Ailey founded in 1958 with the goal of creating a multiethnic modern repertory company, Robert Battle is leaving his imprint. The legendary dancers, including a new younger crop who can tackle both the old school traditional works and contemporary pieces that push them to varying expressive and physical limits, look well honed and perform with amazing strength, flexibility and precision. They can tackle the loose-limbed release technique, balletic pas de deux and conceptual expressionist work. Battle has brought in new repertory including pieces from international choreographers that challenge the dancers and take the company to new realms.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

Tuesday evening’s opening night program included as much glitz and glamour in the audience as it did on stage. The 18th annual gala for the company brought out a few big names in business and politics and a theater filled with Ailey lovers who collectively raised more than $1 million for the company’s programs. But it was the dancing that shone brightest.

While the company is beloved for Ailey’s works, including the incomparable program closer “Revelations,” it was and remains foremost a repertory company, bringing in works by American and international choreographers.

The opener, the late Billy Wilson’s “The Winter in Lisbon,” sparkled in a new production of the choreographer’s 1992 work, here restaged by longtime Ailey associate and assistant artistic director Masazumi Chaya. With Barbara Forbes’ intensely jewel-toned costumes – emerald, amethyst, burgundy and deep orchid dresses, with matching shoes and tights for the women and neat slacks and shirts for the men – the piece showcased the easy going jazz style beloved by Wilson and Ailey. Set to composition by Dizzy Gillespie and jazzman and founder of the D.C. Jazz Festival Charles Fishman, “Winter” was at turns sultry and slinky, snazzy and cool, and all-around lowdown and hot. Dancers slid and rolled through easy going pirouettes, fan kicks, and hip thrusting turns. Men lifted women into soaring split leaps, tucking into smooth spirals on the next beat. Both sexy and fun, it showed off easy virtuosity.

New to the company and to The Kennedy Center, Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” proved both amusing and vaguely inscrutable. Originally created in 2001, but brought into the Ailey rep last year, the piece featured an eight-foot-high wooden wall that became integral to the dance for it could be opened, flattened, pushed into right angles, climbed on, leaned and pushed against and manipulated for varying effects.

The dancers clad in nondescript grays and drab dresses on the women, they variously donned trench coats and bowlers or pointy party hats to add a spark of character, color and silliness as Ravel’s “Bolero” built up its stormy froth. Game-like tricks of hide-and seek between opened and closed doorways and one end and the other of this wall provided the light-hearted silliness, and tempered the unfortunate political connotations that talk of a wall brings these days. Inger’s movement vocabulary draws from an improvisational smorgasbord that looks to be influenced by Israeli dance master Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. All loose limbs, extreme moments of attack, pedestrian strolls, unsettling tremors and bold highly physical body slams against walls and other dancers make up Inger’s palette. An alum of Nederlands Dans Theater, which includes Naharin’s choreography in its repertory, the similarities are unsurprising.

Robert Battle’s small, but not inconsequential “Ella,” a tribute and call out to the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, is full of personality, spice and spitfire. A tightly packed duet it takes on Fitzgerald’s incomparable scatting (“Airmail Special”) with verve and impeccable timing by dancers Christopher Wheeldon and Megan Jakel. Wednesday night, a second duet, from contemporary ballet Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, showcased the more balletic side of the Ailey aesthetic. The pas de deux from “After the Rain” features an emotional arc as the choreography builds, the dancers, gorgeous Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun, entwining and spiraling, stretching to their utmost and retreating to sensuous moments laying on the floor.

Wednesday evening’s program featured another new to The Kennedy Center work, Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep,” which proved a stunning showcase for the Ailey dancers’ contemporary skills and their multi-lingual dance languages. A dark work, with dancers clad in black on a shadowy stage demarcated by boxes or cubes of light, the choreography fashions the dancers into clulmps and pairs executing variations on contorted and broken body positions, emphasizing flexed arms, bent elbows and knees and sharp contrasting torsions of pairs and groups. Contrasting the angularity are curving and undulating or rolling hips and torsos drawing from street moves and hip hop. Hand gestures, too, suggest another cultural construct – perhaps Indian hastas – sign language. The score, club-influenced music by Ibeyi, a pair of twin sisters with French Cuban cultural and musical roots, propels the dancers along showcasing their virtuosity and taut unison. But, “Deep,” with all its cross- or multi-cultural borrowings of movement and music, doesn’t go anywhere. It’s lovely to watch but shallow in its message.

Also new to Washington, Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America,” a section of his full-evening triptych, left  a sobering pall. Drawing on interviews with incarcerated citizens and their family members – which we hear in voiceovers along with a score featuring Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai, Kris Bowers and traditional spirituals, the piece dealt plainly with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Dressed in non-descript gray pants and open tops that from the back could resemble prison jumpsuits, the dancers execute choreographer Abraham’s pain-evoking gestures: hands held aloft in a “don’t shoot” posture, or clasped behind the back as if handcuffed or behind the head for a body search. The half-lit, smoke-filled stage with sharply delineated boxes of light felt oppressive and the dancers, lined up and filed on and off the stage into darkness, like a chain gang. Abraham’s movement is loosely constructed but hard edged, the oppositional attack contrasting the few moments of connection. The work leaves the dancers in their singular isolating bubbles, as voiceovers speak of the loneliness and disconnection of prison life. The hard faces and clenched fists speak powerfully about where Abraham’s America is now.

That pall lifted as the lights lowered and the hum of a gospel chorus took everyone to Ailey church. His “Revelations,” the 1960 masterwork that closes virtually every program the company dances, has become an expectation for audiences who seek spiritual succor and uplift the indelible choreography. With its traditional gospel score, its journey from slavery to religious renewal to freedom it’s iconic. At the first hummed strains “I Been ‘Buked,” applause takes over. With each emblematic moment — dancers curved over their birdlike arms punctuating the air, the internal struggle made visible through staunch abdominal movements in “I Wanna Be Ready,” the smooth hip rolling walks of “Wade in the Water” — the applause builds. These moments have become iconic, seared into memory by Ailey fans and appreciated for embodied legacy they carry: the choreography itself renders the story of African Americans in vivid wordless moments. At last, a bright, hot sun shimmers on the back scrim and the church-like revival reaches its peak with “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” The women wave their straw fans, the men pulse their shoulders and take their loving scolds with equanimity. “Revelations” has become the most-performed, and likely beloved, modern dance in the world. For the company it represents past, present and future, returning young dancers to the root of the company’s ethos and bringing audiences a spiritual charge that will sustain them until next year.

This season the company included area natives Elisa Clark, who trained at Maryland Youth Ballet; Ghrai Devore; Samantha Figgins who trained at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; Jacqueline Green who danced at Baltimore School for the Arts; Daniel Harder who studied at Suitland High School’s Center for Visual and Performing Arts; and Jermaine Terry.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Jacqueline Green. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater plays through February 12, 2017, at The John F. Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The repertory varies. All performances are sold out. To check on tickets call (202) 467-4600. For future The Kennedy Center events, go to their calendar.

Running Time: Two  hours and 15 minutes, with two intermissions.

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Lisa Traiger
An arts journalist since 1985, Lisa Traiger writes frequently on the performing arts for Washington Jewish Week and other local and national publications, including Dance, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. She also edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online eJournal. She was a freelance dance critic for The Washington Post Style section from 1997-2006. As arts correspondent, her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week where she has reported on Jewish drum circles, Israeli folk dance, Holocaust survivors, Jewish Freedom Riders, and Jewish American artists from Ben Shahn to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim to Y Love, Anna Sokolow to Liz Lerman. Her dance writing can also be read on DanceViewTimes.com. She has written for Washingtonian, The Forward, Moment, Dance Studio Life, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Atlanta Jewish Times, and Washington Review. She received two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association; a 2009 shared Rockower for reporting; and in 2007 first-place recognition from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. In 2003, Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She holds an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has taught dance appreciation at the University of Maryland and Montgomery College, Rockville, Md. Traiger served on the Dance Critics Association Board of Directors from 1991-93, returned to the board in 2005, and served as co-president in 2006-2007. She was a member of the advisory board of the Dance Notation Bureau from 2008-2009.