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Technically Speaking, Alvin Ailey is “Sheer Dance Pleasure”
By Rosie Gaynor
Posted April 6, 2008

Alvin Ailey Poster
© Andrew Eccles

    In a review of the Kirov Ballet this week, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay lamented (or lambasted?) that company’s absence of “sheer dance pleasure.” Too bad he wasn’t here in Seattle with us watching Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Opening night was sheer (completely, utterly, unqualified) dance (grace, rhythm) pleasure onstage and off. What a night! 

    You can see the power and exuberance of this company in their marketing materials: these dancers jump off the page. In the theater, though, you also see their emotions, their passion, their ability to portray the sensuous, the sad, the spiritual. Athletic fireworks excite an audience, but I’ve a hunch that’s not what makes such fervent believers out of the Alvin Ailey audience. They are not all of them exceptional dancers, but by and large they are masters of emotion and belief on a stage too small to contain them. There’s this sense that this company is something really special—like Parsifal, or Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, or Shakespeare, or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.  

    It was apparent even before the show began. Folks began clapping as the lights went down. 

    A 50th anniversary video started the evening. It was long enough to have content and it shared some beautiful photos of the past. They took a risk by starting with a puff piece, talking about a great man and showing best-of-history pictures; how can anybody today live up to the memory of great people at their best? 

    Next up: Two of the non-Ailey pieces the company pulls into its repertory to stay live and relevant. Maurice Béjart’s Firebird led the way. I was excited to see his choreography to Stravinsky’s suite, as months ago a good, fun review in the New York Times whetted my appetite for it. (Alastair again:  

    This Firebird is about ¾ of the way down on my long Good Ballets List, but I’d watch it again in a heartbeat. Very abstract and not so pretty, there are nonetheless many moments of transcendent beauty. The Firebird is a man in red—or, possibly, sometimes also this man plus his gray-garbed groupies. They often moved together, en masse…with varying abilities…but all stretching arms, backs, and legs to feel and fill the music. Clifton Brown (Friday’s Firebird) blew me away with his incredible technique and his nuanced performance. 

    Was the ending cheesy? A bird resurrecting…a new red bird dancing with the old red bird? Sure. But it worked. They carried it off on an emotional level as well as on a technical level. To see the old bird bear the new bird on his back—lifting him… This new bird was no 110-pound ballerina, but a tall and muscled man. 

    Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section followed. It’s golden, all right.* Golden swimsuits (tight, tiny trunks for the men)…with golden trim…and little boots…and wrist cuffs to match. My friend commented that it was energy at the expense of emotion, sometimes deteriorating into acrobatics. I’d agree with him. He went on: “Look! We can fly, but we’re not saying anything.” That being said, and agreed to, it was still fun to watch them dance to David Byrne. Just once, though.   

    The next piece I could have watched over and over all night. Reflections in D.

    Finally, after two intermissions, Alvin Ailey’s own choreography. This is something I can’t get enough of—a free ballet that uses body and mind and rhythm and soul, a style that that borrows beauty from other cultures and creates something new with it. This piece is from 1962. How is it still so fresh and intriguing? 

    Antonio Douthit danced this Duke Ellington reverie with amazing grace—in both senses of the word. So strong, so fluid. He draws music on the stage with his feet and in the air with his arms. (What I wouldn’t give to seem him dance with PNB’s Carla Korbes, who has such beautiful carriage and glorious arms…not to mention grace.)  

    A short pause, and then the company’s signature piece: Revelations. Put together gospel music and good dancers and you’ve got me hooked. (If only it had been live music, as it apparently was for the company’s gala in New York last year. Even so, it was compelling.) A few of the ten “scenes” were charmingly dated, and the crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping, hand-clapping “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” verged on high school musical. (It was not without nuance, though. I will never forget the attitude in one woman’s elbow. I don’t know who she was (a slight woman in the center) but she gripped her back in just the right place and that elbow of hers flew out in a way that expressed what every hard-working, no-nonsense, bossy woman of ages past has ever said to a misbehaving man or child.)   

    Three scenes, however, really pulled me in. One was the obvious choice: the “Sinner Man” trio—with its runaway energy, astounding jumps, and raw fear. (Hello, Mr. Douthit again.) 

    Another, “I Wanna Be Ready,” featured Firebird Clifton Brown in what could be the longest, most beautiful Pilates exercise in history. As he danced it Friday, it is a study in abs…and longing. (Again with the pairing of technique and emotion.) 

    I also loved “Fix Me Jesus.” This duet was a little more about the woman. (In the four pieces we saw Friday night, the women got the short straw, I think. They were working hard and with passion, and some had steps of power that they executed well, but the costumes often hid their movement or their line. In “Fix Me Jesus,” the woman was an equal. We saw the dancer on the poster above, Linda Celeste Sims. Given the nature of the role, she was not as bold as portrayed on the poster here, but there was the same passion and extraordinary technique. 

    I wondered, as I watched a tired, flat, mechanical oh-yeah-we’re-on-the-road-but-let’s-be-generous encore of “Rocka My Soul,” how will the dancers perform the huge number of Revelations they have in front of them on this 50th Anniversary Tour. Is it a never-ending Nutcracker for them? How can it continue to be so remarkable? How can they live up to people’s memories of this beloved piece? How can they possibly sustain this level of passion?  

    But in thinking back to Friday’s performance, I realize that for this group, it is not a matter of sheer dance pleasure vs. technique. Or even sdp plus technique. The passion and belief and emotion and joy that make up sdp—all of that is a part of the technique for this group. And lucky are those of us who get to bear witness to it.

    * What is it with Tywla Tharp’s hideous costumes from the 1980s? (Unfair comment! I’ve only seen two. But still…) Tharp creates two pieces on Pacific Northwest Ballet next season. No costume designers are listed yet, but let us hope it’s someone like Mark Zappone or Marty Pakledinaz, both of whom have turned out gorgeous costumes for the company in the past.


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