Review: ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (Program B)’ at The Kennedy Center

“Who will tell our grandmothers’ stories?” The phenomenal Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater soulfully responds in memory of its iconic founder with dignity, power and enough creative energy to light up a future that rocks optimism and holds hope close to its bosom.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Donna Ward.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Donna Ward.

The company’s 60th anniversary attests to the staying power of a dance institution that still has something to say about the African-American experience. Ailey’s message still reverberates with ever-increasing intensity, gathering even more momentum in the face of current-day forces that would dim its light–but for the power of dance to tell the stories that touch all of humanity.

On the second night of its much-anticipated February run at the Kennedy Center, Program B was a mix of modern and African dance spanning Western folk classics, the elegant bebop of jazzy blues, the percussive insistence of the African drum, and the redemptive power of the black church.

The Ailey brand is dance excellence grounded in choreographic versatility performed with elegant athleticism and lyrical expressiveness. This performance particularly highlighted the company’s stunning versatility by including collaboration with the “physical thinking” and intellectual brilliance of British choreographer Wayne McGregor in “Kairos”; a spiritual shout-out to the ancestors in Ronald K. Brown’s multi-dimensional “The Call”; and the avant-garde artistry of Robert Battle, the company’s Artistic Director, in the frantic electricity of “Juba.” The company’s signature “Revelations,” Ailey’s own masterpiece, seals the evening in healing tribute.

Music beautifully frames each work chosen for this performance. Max Richter’s “Vivaldi-The Four Seasons Recomposed” in “Kairos” is haunting and builds to a strong crescendo of ascending emotion, which the dancers express as if playing the music with their bodies.

The mystical impact of Lucy Carter’s strobe lighting in ”Kairos” creates a magical aura. But the light is elusive and seems to make form appear through the dancers’ bodies and just as easily disappear before your very eyes. The flickering lighting and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t movement create an eerily ghostlike experience in the opening moments of “Kairos.”

Musical lines on a page fill the backdrop of Scenic Designer Idris Khan’s linear scrim as dancers’ stick-straight arabesques physically mimic the angularity of lines in space. Sinewy, curved lines create stark contrast in the carriage of the arms that flow like honey.

Ten male and female dancers’ bodies blend, embrace and support, lifting each other high in the air. Arms dig deep into the earth with rounded shoulders. Dancers prance like confident young fillies off for a jaunty sprint. Taut échappés meld into flexed feet as the dancers create a paragraph of unified movement with solo sentences that stand alone.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Nan Melville.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Nan Melville.

The purity of the dancers’ holding hands in unison seems to express the paradox of simplicity within complexity in “Kairos,” as the ruled linear disappears in an instant and reappears as a curved-lined jolt of free-form, human connection. Dancers run in a circular motion as if united unto infinity in the closing moments of Wayne McGregor’s wizardry in “Kairos.”

In “The Call,” the classical music of Bach, the cool jazz of Mary Lou Williams and the Malian earthiness of the Asase Yaa Entertainment Group create the sound that harmoniously set the tone for Ronald K. Brown’s first work for the Ailey company. I wondered about the symbolism of the title but my curiosity was wonderfully satisfied in witnessing a call to the African ancestors and the call to the spirit of Alvin Ailey to remain alive and well through this eclectic piece.

In the opening tableau of “The Call,” a woman garbed in a satiny lingerie-like gown embroidered with a black lace bodice glides together with a man in a tan, wide-leg zoot-suit reminiscent of the deep dance relationship between Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey. They dance elegantly to Bach in adagio tempo to the pizzicato of a solo violin with gracefully static port de bras and quietly powerful swirling.

The tempo and the musical genre gently change as four dancers groove with ease to the bluesy sound of a jazz-bar piano. The movement matches the music with quick arabesques, lowdown, bent knees, contracted torsos, and lighthearted lifts in cool be-bop mode. In the finale, the African drumbeat cues movement in the form of undulating hips, slow twirls, African dancing with hand to heart and hand behind the back as dancers turn slowly to the music’s percussive prompting.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by Gert Krautbauer.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Gert Krautbauer.

John Mackey’s original music frames Robert Battle’s “Juba,” a fast-paced, jagged, frenetically manic work full of effervescent energy. Dancers run with clenched fists and arms straight in front of them. They dance a crazed high-kicked jig like a possessed Russian Cossack. They beat their thighs, stomp their feet, and hold hands in a merry-go-round lineup of madness and determined zeal.

Falling to the ground, dragging the body, bobbing heads in crazed motions and jerking the frame as if haunted by spirits, the avant-garde “Juba” paints a disturbingly enjoyable portrait of purposeful, unbridled energy. Again, the company’s versatility is confirmed and succeeds in meeting the challenge of creating new forms with a futuristic twist.

In the finale, “Revelations” continues to thrill with its timeless message of salvation, redemption and pure joy. The three male dancers in the “Sinner Man” section of this three-part work are notably strong. They run across the stage as if avoiding imminent danger, landing exactly and precisely in place every time. They are a talented ensemble of perfect synchronization, athletic prowess, and impeccable execution. The audience went wild.

“A love letter to Alvin Ailey,” in the words of choreographer Ronald K. Brown, is an apt description for the soaring program of the second night of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center. In celebration of the company’s 60th anniversary, its eclectic mix of modern and African dance drove home the universal message of fearlessness in confronting challenge and versatility in the face of change.

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. 10. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or toll-free 800-444-1324, or purchase them online.

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