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Impressions of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's "Awakening"

Impressions of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's "Awakening"

Published on January 5, 2016
Photo: Paul Kolnik

Battle's First New Work for his Company

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY 10019
December 17, 2015 @ 7:30 p.m.; December 22, 2015 @ 7:30 p.m.

Dancers: (December 17): Jamar Roberts with Yannick Lebrun, Rachael McLaren, Michael Francis McBride, Samuel Lee Roberts, Daniel Harder, Demetia Hopkins-Greene, Jacqueline Green, Kanji Segama, Belen Pereyra, Elisa Clark, Jacquelin Harris
(December 22): Jermaine Terry with Belen Pereyra, Demetia Hopkins-Greene, Jacqueline Green, Jacquelin Harris, Elisa Clark, Rachael McLaren, Samuel Lee Roberts, Kanji Segawa, Michael Francis McBride, Daniel Harder, Yannick Lebrun

Choreography: Robert Battle
Musical Scores: “Turning” and “The Attentions of Souls” by John Mackey
Costume Design: Joy Taylor : Lighting Design: Al Crawford

Robert Battle, the personal choice of Judith Jamison as her successor, was brought on board as artistic director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, in large part because of his proven abilities as a choreographer and dance company administrator. An alumnus of Juilliard and of the David Parsons company, he also had the experience of running his own company, Battleworks; and, since 1999, had been making dances and serving as artist-in-residence for the main Ailey company, Ailey II, and the Ailey school. However, as Battle makes clear in an interview on the AAADT website, he was intensely aware, in accepting Jamison's offer, of the responsibility he was shouldering at the top of the Ailey pyramid. And so he held off making another new dance for the Ailey company for four years.

With Awakening, accorded its world premiere by AAADT at City Center this season, Battle has given the company its first work by him since he became its formal leader. As a company portrait, it is careful to a fault not to make any wrong choices regarding his views of the dancers. Essentially, the work's cast of twelve has been divided into an ensemble of eleven (five men and six women) and a towering figure who first galvanizes them and then, alone, seems to be either the victim of invisible opponents or tormented by his own self-doubt. (Both gentlemen I saw in this role — Jamar Roberts and Jermaine Terry — were formidable.) As Battle notes, this outstanding male figure is distinguished by his heroic physical stature and his dignity in motion. Although individuals from the ensemble are momentarily showcased in intimate cameos (as when a woman cradles a fallen comrade and places her palm on his brow), the group is generally deployed as a herd or a flock, or as architectural elements arranged asymmetrically in lines, and blocks, and shivering huddles.

AAADT dressed all in white huddles together peering over their shoulders

AAADT in Robert Battle's Awakening. Photo by Paul Kolnik

I believe Awakening has three sections (it's not entirely clear how many from the two musical works, by experienced Battle collaborator composer John Mackey, which constitute the score).

There is an urgent opening to an ear-splitting horn reveille, which sounds uncannily like a shofar, with everyone running like cattle in a round-up. The dancers are chased into various formations and then, to quieter music that is still unrelievedly tense, they crawl and fall and rise and lunge, with the occasional relief of lying down in a packed mound while the big guy (I think of him as the Wheelmaster) catches one of the figures by an appendage and, slowly pushing clockwise, turns the entire crew, like a great steed turning a water wheel. There is a sudden warm bath of roseate light and a blackout.

The music, however, has continued in its soft-spoken yet relentless anxiety. Lights come up and we see one man lying alone on his side, wheeling himself, then adopting a fetal position and wheeling himself in that position, then arising and taking painfully huge fourth-position lunges. The ensemble enters, the music unfurls its intentions to the decibel-level of assault, and, upstage, a nearly blinding grid of spotlights flips on. The grid suddenly acquires a black hole at its center and is then transformed into lights that “randomly” dot the dark, like stars or a spattering of apartment lights in a night sky. Individual dancers go haywire with physical tics and falls and jumping, and erratic movements of other kinds. The lights pump on all the way.

A program note explains that Awakening is dedicated to Joan Weill, AAADT's longtime benefactor and chair of the company's board, “in appreciation of her inspired leadership, wisdom, caring, and grace.” From this note, I supposed that the dance is partly a representation of  Battle's self-portrait at the helm and partly a portrait of Alvin Ailey as the giant whose legacy must be carried forward by generations of dancers whose individualities are subsumed under the corporate discipline of the group. On the other hand, if one did not read the program note or think about Battle's relationship to the company, Awakening can look very different, indeed — i.e., like a dance that addresses the issue that has seized the country of black Americans being chased and killed in city streets and/or (that punitive grid of lights!) in prisons.

Dancer Jamar Roberts stands under a spotlight with arms outstretched at his side and feet planted firmly on the ground
AAADT's Jamar Roberts in Robert Battle's Awakening. Photo by Paul Kolnik

This double image is, I believe, built into the work. By my lights, the brute wit of it is impressive, although, as someone who began to look at AAADT in 1972, when Ailey was still turning out dances and occasionally taking a bow, I'd like to say that, as I remember it, the company didn't present itself as Alvin Ailey's choreography and everyone else interchangeably serving it. Rather, it was a family of extraordinary, memorably individual performers with specific gifts that the choreography showcased.

The costuming for Awakening clothes everyone in homogenizing white tops and trousers, with horizontal white-on-white bands along the sleeves. I was reminded of a “Talk of the Town” story that Adam Gopnik contributed to The New Yorker a few years ago, in which (and I hope I have this right) he spoke of how snowflakes are formed as they fall: They begin as identical hexagons and, in falling, acquire the bitten and etched designs that render each flake unique. Or, one might say in this context, entirely awake — although Battle seems to have saved that finishing transformation for another company dance.


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