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IMPRESSIONS: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center with Choreography by Camille A. Brown, Robert Battle, and Alvin Ailey

IMPRESSIONS: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center with Choreography by Camille A. Brown, Robert Battle, and Alvin Ailey
Dot Armstrong

By Dot Armstrong
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Published on January 20, 2020
Robert Battle's "Mass"; Photo by Paul Kolnik

December 17, 2019

Choreography by Camille A. Brown (City of Rain), Robert Battle (Mass and Ella), and Alvin Ailey (Revelations)

Music: Jonathan Melville Pratt (City of Rain), John Mackey (Mass), Ella Fitzgerald (Ella), Traditional (Revelations) // Lighting: Burke Wilmore (City of Rain, Mass, Ella), Nicola Cernovitch (Revelations)

Costume Designer: Mayte Natalio (City of Rain), Fritz Masten (Mass), Jon Taylor (Ella), Ves Harper (Revelations), Barbara Forbes (“Rocka My Soul,” Revelations)

It seems everything has already been said about Ailey. The company holds a legendary place in the timeline of American modern dance and remains a gem of the New York dance scene. As an aspiring dancer from small-town Minnesota, I read about it through middle school, high school, and college in dance history texts, scholarly articles, and Dance Magazine features. I glued pictures of Linda Celeste Sims and Jacqueline Green to my notebooks. I watched grainy excerpts from Revelations on YouTube, admiring the poignant solos and stirring group numbers alike.

Against a backdrop of a sun, woman in hats hold up fans
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Alvin Ailey's Revelations. Photo by

My impressions may echo the words of many other dance reviewers, but I write with the fresh enthusiasm of a first-time Ailey audience member on a particular night in a particular year. What follows are humble yet genuine gestures towards a larger understanding of this influential company.

Dancers hold their hand to the sky while one dancers slaps his leg
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Camille A. Brown's City of Rain. Photo by Paul Kolnik

First on the program: the premiere of Camille A. Brown’s City of Rain. It’s electric with thunderbolts of passion, grief, and tragedy. The ensemble mourns an unwitnessed event through fluid phrases of syncopated, technical movement grounded by staccato hip, chest, and limb articulations. They pelt the spare, gray-lit stage with accumulating percussive rhythmic patterns. Liquid leaps flow into jagged gestures, expressing the discontinuity of loss. Loose torsos undulate atop tight footwork, desperately seeking atonement. The dancers circle and dodge, weave and dart, embrace and collapse. Fists and legs fly skyward; pedestrian gestures mingle with refined lines to create a palpable atmosphere of pent-up grief.

Dancers mourn in a clump; one man lifts his hand heavenward
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's Mass. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Mass (Robert Battle) is mysterious, atmospheric, and eccentric. The entire company is clad in clerical satin robes and lit in columns of magenta, amber, and lime as if seen through stained glass windows in a cathedral. The dancers shuffle, hover, and wheel in winding formations. They gather in grids, circles, and dramatic diagonals that evoke ecclesiastical architecture. They fold their hands, grasping orbs of spiritual energy. A soloist spins and contracts in divine fervor, a consummate minister received by the congregation. Abstract devotion fuels the ensemble from beginning to end, inciting furious unison movement like physical hymns and peaceful tableaux like contemplative prayers.

One dancer is in a huge side split jump while another kicks her head
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel in Robert Battle's Ella. Photo by Teresa Wood taken at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Ella (Robert Battle) is the shortest and sweetest. Set to the incomparable stylings of Ella Fitzgerald, it’s all quicksilver musicality. Ghrai DeVore-Stokes and Patrick Coker tickle my funny bone with their wild-eyed, fleet-footed duetting. They match each other toe tap for split leap, reveling in gender-neutral jazzy elegance and slap-happy prat-fall comedic timing. Pitch turns across the stage! Sequined coattails catching the light in double, triple, quadruple pirouettes! Percolating hip, chest, and head isolations in time to Ella’s scat fantasy! Smiles and hands spread wide! This treat cleanses my palate with the astringent sweetness of a lemon drop.

Dancers clump into a pyramid, their arms bent and extended, like wings
AAADT in Alvin Ailey's Revelations with live music. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Revelations (Alvin Ailey) is, simply, a revelation. Supple arms and yearning sternums, deep pliés and gravity-defying hinges, angelic lifts, fiery leaps, swinging hips, swirling dresses, flapping fans and clapping hands. A grand display of Horton technique — pitch turns, knee crawls, and lateral T’s in dizzying succession — all grounded in the honeyed power of spirituals. The precise musicality, paired with top-notch artistry from the company, keeps the work fresh. Ailey’s classic is a true evergreen: a historical standby for all seasons.

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