A cough, a gasp, the sound of a heartbeat. A sudden flash in the darkness. These sounds and images begin “Lazarus,” the brand-new work from hip hop master Rennie Harris, which opened a glitzy celebration of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The roiling evening presented the company’s first two-part ballet – throughout his career, Ailey called his decidedly modern works ballets. The combination of “Lazarus” and the “blood memories” of “Revelations” took the well-heeled audience on a journey through the hard and heartless history of being black in the United States, where slavery and segregation remain our nation’s original sin. At the close, though the audience roared its approval, those first gasps and the searing images of suffering remain. And both are as integral to the Ailey essence as to our American tale.
Bathed in dim light by James Clotfelter, the Ailey dancers toggle between an exaggerated slow walk, a quick-footed buck-and-wing, and stark stillness. The dancers stand, their shoulders hunched over, heads drooping.
And suddenly, a vision of the “strange fruit” of lynched bodies hanging from poplar trees elicits a gasp, this time from knowing observers. This is how “Lazarus” works its magic: Harris maneuvers his shifting movement tableaux calling on embodied images of the wretchedness of being black in America. From the agonizing image of Eric Garner, cuffed and gasping for air, crying “I can’t breathe,” to snapshots of hunched bodies, doubled over from exhaustion, physical and spiritual, to the Hollywood-ized visions of a “happy Negro” singing and dancing for his supper, Harris has collected the visual atlas of the immoral subjugation of a people.
A Philadelphia native who grew up on the rough streets of North Philly, he has spent decades bringing vernacular street dance forms to concert stages around the world with his own renowned company, making hip hop theatrical and imbuing it with messages of despair and hope. Harris knows his history, of course, but he knows, too, how to capture in movement images the harsh and inscrutable essence of being black in America.
This is the heart and soul of “Lazarus,” which the Ailey company commissioned as a tribute to its founder, Mr. Ailey, who lives on through the choreography he gave his dancers and through a now powerhouse dance organization. The piece, too, serves as a rejoinder to Ailey’s own seminal choreography, “Revelations,” which takes viewers on a similar spiritual and historical journey from slavery to renewal to revival in its three well-known sections.
“Revelations” has been the company’s bread-and-butter for decades, enticing audiences in for the reverence of this finale, and giving them a swath of newer works that toggle between contemporary modern dance, curated by current artistic director Robert Battle, and Ailey classics, some still resonant, others a bit faded. The much-admired company’s 60-year history can, in part, be attributed to the popularity and influence of “Revelations,” which sparks whoops, nods and clap-alongs for the familiar gospel songs and spirit-infused dancing entrances audiences year after year. Akin to ballet classics like “Swan Lake,” “Revelations,” it seems, never gets old. Alas, it is not always expertly performed. Opening night, it felt a little subdued coming right after the far heavier dramatic arc that “Lazarus” rides. Perhaps the dancers were spent after throwing down their hypersensitive and kinetic performance of the two-parter.
When seen next to “Lazarus,” with its far more trenchant – and realistic – look at the African-American experience, “Revelations” feels more than a little old-fashioned. The near-ancient Graham technique – contractions of the pelvis as the back curves, either smoothly or percussively – lateral side tilts, and running triplet steps, looks quaint next to Harris’s more sophisticated fusion of street dance coupled with modern techniques and gestural references.
That’s not to say Ailey’s masterwork should be retired. To the contrary, the two works serve as instructive companion pieces when seen together. In fact, Harris is filtering Aileyisms into the work right alongside his sly references to the Dougie, the Nae Nae, and the Dab. In “Lazarus,” Harris seems to be wrestling to uncover not just Ailey, the choreographer, but Ailey the man, who put his heart and soul into his choreographic ventures and navigating the world as a black man amid the peak of the Civil Rights movement and into the 1970s and ‘80s.
In “Lazarus,” Harris, like Ailey before him, alludes to Biblical elements. The story goes that though dead for four days, Jesus resurrects Lazarus, the miracle foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. In “Lazarus,” though, the struggle, the agony of oppression, is told in grim, gritty segments of movement montages. A group of women harvest an invisible crop, drawing sustenance from the earth, tucking it into their bundled aprons. Another clump of dancers falls to their knees, hands clasped in prayer, trembling – for salvation from God or man? Bare-chested men, their pants held up with a cord of rope, collapse, others drag these lifeless bodies off stage.
Harris shows us the burden of history, the weight of living – and dying – black in America. The piercing cries – ululations – punctuate Darrin Ross’s wide-ranging score, along with other equally harsh sound effects including gunshots, screams, and weeping. This first part of “Lazarus” pushes viewers beyond the dichotomous earth-and-heaven pull of Ailey’s first sections of “Revelations,” “Pilgrim of Sorrow.” Alas, in Ross’s sound score, the earlier voiceovers are almost indecipherable over pulsating underscoring. Some of the words are Ailey’s own, others are from Harris.
Harris takes the simplified slavery-to-freedom narrative of his progenitor and reflects on it with a more jaded 21st-century mindset. Harris doesn’t take us to the water, he takes us into the mud. As dancers lay prone, their arms undulating as so many rows of corn or wheat waving in a field, one dancer navigates through this thicket of bodies. That image ends part one and begins part two.
On their return, the dancers are no longer in early to mid-20th-century streetwear – A-lined skirts, slacks, overalls, or sweaters of muted earth tones. Their bare feet are now ensconced in black sneakers, while they’ve donned costume designer Mark Eric’s purple and burgundy club wear. The heaviness of Act 1 lifts with a song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as prone bodies rise from that reedy bog. Their hands beseech in prayer, and tremor with hope or trepidation. As drums pound out a samba-style beat, groups of dancers, first men, then women, catch the heat of the beat, heads bob, hips twitch, feet shuffle in swift kick ball changes. And as in all Harris works, the dance becomes a spirit-filled experience.
This is where Harris finds soul and purpose, letting the dancers loose to deliver a free-flowing, dynamic sequence drawing allusions to prayer, church and praise dancing in a raised arm, a hand waving, hunched shoulders giving way to uplifted faces. Top-rocking shuffles crisply done pound the sleepy ground awake beneath the dancers’ feet. It’s a churchy revival of 21st-century proportions and sentiments – baptisms beside the point. Purification, cleansing comes from the dance itself, bodies pushing, reaching, flinging, falling, roiling with Harris’s trademark hip hop. Men cartwheel one-armed up from the floor and women tangle up in pretzel shapes, then skitter.
The tension releases. We’ve been waiting for these few powerful, spirit-filled moments the entire evening. We just didn’t know it. While the 16 dancers power through eye-catching mini-solos that feel improvised (but likely aren’t), the audience is encouraged to clap along. In our red velvet seats, we’re momentarily part of the circle – in hip hop terms, the cypher – ready to take a turn with a cool spin or fancy kick. They’re not dancing for us, they’re dancing us.
Harris leads his dancers and onlookers almost to the metaphorical mountaintop, but not quite. A sudden break – it felt like a false ending – gives pause. The stage darkens. The dancers gather close, then one lone man, in silhouette, walks away. Is it Ailey resurrecting? Is it Lazarus? Ailey’s distinctive recorded voice reminisces about what compelled him to create – those “blood memories,” recalling what it was like to grow up black, poor but God-fearing, in small-town Texas.
“Lazarus” does not sugarcoat. Harris’s celebratory sequences feel more real than the easy climax of Ailey’s church-infused “Revelations.” In contrast to the historical images wedded into the collective unconscious of even the most modest student of American history, this homage to Ailey, the man and the creative force, focuses an unforgiving lens on the realities of being black in America today. That was Ailey’s story and his wellspring. Side by side, “Revelations” and “Lazarus” converse about despair and hope, past and future, tradition and innovation. And, of course, the indomitable spirit Alvin Ailey carried, which is now lighting the way to a new generation.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including two 15-minute intermissions.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs through Sunday, February 10, 2019, at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. This program is repeated Feb. 8 and 9. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or toll-free 800-444-1324, or purchase them online.