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IMPRESSIONS: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at City Center - December 20th, 2009
Choreography and Original Artwork: Judith Jamison
Assistant to the Choregrapher: Clifton Brown
Original Composition: ELEW
Costumes: Paul Tazewell
Lighting and Scene Design: Al Crawford
Choreography/Direction: Judith Jamison
Restaging: Masazumi Chaya
Text-Concept, Writing, Performance: Anna Deveare Smith
Music by Robert Ruggieri
Original Costumes: Toyce Anderson
Costume Redesign: John Taylor
Set: Timothy Hunter, Daniel Bonitsky, Donald J. Oberpriller
Lightning: Timothy Hunter
Judith Jamison’s new choreography Among Us Private Spaces: Public Places, moves from vignette to vignette introducing us to boilerplate characters we have met in many concert dances of yore. There are the uptown people, who wear suits, and the downtown people who are casual, going sleeveless with scarves around their necks. (Downtown people roll their shoulders and use more grounded movement in love duets than their uptown counterparts.) The spunky jazz girl with a midriff top and a tarty red mini cutting across her black leggings “gets down." Lovers are introduced, young spunky ones and mature searching ones, and there are rascally guys sittin’ outside on a bench hamming it up and showing off for each other and, oh yes, the spunky jazz girl, again. A tall, suited man with some sort of pastel painting on the back of his jacket leads the section called Precedent (President). Is he supposed to be an Obama figure? What makes him important? Is this some sort of political statement? At the end everybody joins to whirl and twirl and celebrate. They are all one. It reminds me a bit of a 1970’s variety show piece-something I might have caught on “The Carol Burnett Show” when I was a kid.
The predictable people of Among Us .... inhabit anything but a standard setting. They dance to stunning jazz sounds of Eric Robert Lewis in an art gallery-like set filled with bold communicative paintings by Judith Jamison—fabulous stuff. Six portraits of gorgeous dark faces with huge expressive eyes fan out on the back wall, animating the stage. On stage left a canvas filled by a male torso with his neck extending to the heavens calls to us. A square -framed screen in the center of the set (sometimes there sometimes not) houses a slide show of other faces by Jamison. At one point, above it all, a huge pair of almond eyes stares powerfully out at the characters on stage and the audience. With the promises made by the striking individuality of the artwork, the music, and the talented dancers of the Ailey Company, I am disappointed to be served a cliché story occupied by flat, dated types.
The one figure that seemed choreographically compatible with his setting and the concept of the dance was the striking magical personality, Jin (Genie). Decked in skintight, cool turquoise with a long icy plume extending vertically from his head, Jin (Genie) introduces and concludes the piece. When he sprinkles golden glitter as the lights fade at the end of the dance, it elicits a “wow” and a satisfied “ahh”. He brings the magic of the paintings and the characters (all be they “stock”) together.
Highlights of the work, besides the fine technique and energy of all the Ailey dancers, were exceptional performances by Renee Robinson, Samuel Lee Roberts and Briana Reed. Robinson brings depth of feeling and elegance to every turn, jump and step. The articulate Samuels transitions from legato to staccato in a second, turns on a dime, falls to spring up, and then kicks his leg to the Lord above. He can be a rascal or a romantic, yet what impresses me most is when he performs a simple act like arching his torso backwards, then tapping one shoulder with his stretched fingers. Just that, and I am moved. Not simply a proficient dancer pounding out choreography, Roberts is a sensitive interpreter. As for Briana Reed who played the young woman lover in the section called “Brights”-- she eats up the air around her with an indefatigable passion. Never have I seen pink flounce flounce the way it did when she wore it.
is a 1993 collaboration between Jamison and the playwright, actor, and author Anna Deavere Smith. A flowing poem of text and dance, Hymn stirringly captures the essence of Alvin Ailey’s legacy as a modern moving prayer. Ailey’s words interspersed with Jamison’s, and those of dancers in the company throughout the ages, are expertly integrated so it seems as if they are talking and listening to one another despite the boundaries of time and place.
Deavere Smith eloquently embodies the spirit of the storytellers. There are stories immediately recognizable as profound, as well as tales of the everyday proved profound as they reveal the humanity of their speakers. The recorded voice of Ailey speaks of not being interested in creating social statements; yet, he acknowledges that by creating an all black company beautifully dancing out his “blood memories” of life in the south, he did make a social statement. Dudley Williams realizes he never told Alvin he loved him with those actual words. Renee Robinson speaks of the challenge and struggle of being a dancer. Masazumi Chaya recalls how frightened the dancers were to perform when racists made a threat to bomb their theater —yet they went on to give a beautiful show that the audience cheered. The bigots lost. Jamison is waiting for Alvin to come out on stage any second. “He is here,” she says.
Cascading and receding among the words, dancers perform excerpts of choreography often filling the stage with their magnificent bodies. It is breathtaking to see such a large group of beautifully trained artists bent forward with their arms in the iconic arches that mirror the opening shape of Revelations. Wearing simple pants, with bare chests or plain leotards, they allow us to appreciate their bare bones and curved muscles.
The set, pared down to only the necessary, tells stories with light changes that evoke mood; a spot on an empty stool in the up left corner evoking the memory of Ailey; and magically, at one point, a brilliant rustling red backdrop, suggesting an ever present creative spirit blowing through the space.