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May 032014
 

I cannot prove the following judgment because I have not seen every dancer on the globe, but I believe that the members of the Alvin Ailey troupe are among the best in the world.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at Citi Performing Arts Center, Wang Theatre, Boston, MA, through May 4.

D-Man in the Waters, Choreography: Bill T. Jones . Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo: Paul Kolnik

“D-Man in the Waters” Choreography: Bill T. Jones. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

By Iris Fanger

The opening night program by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was probably a first for local audiences, even though the engagement marks the company’s 44th annual appearance in Boston. I do not remember seeing an Ailey evening without one work by the founder on the program — ever.

Genial artistic director Robert Battle, the third in that position since Ailey’s death in 1989 (and Judith Jamison’s retirement three years ago), underlined the “American Dance” portion of the troupe’s title on Thursday night. (For Ailey enthusiasts, the other program that alternates over this weekend features a trio of Ailey-Ellington favorites, plus the company’s evergreen “Revelations.”) Battle’s oft-stated mission is to bring new choreography to the company repertory, as well as to preserve the founder’s legacy of works.

Thursday night’s program included British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma,” followed by Bill T. Jones’ heart-warming classic “D-Man In The Waters (Part I),” and ended with the season’s premiere, “Lift.” The last is choreographed by Aszure Barton, who remains the flavor of the month in the contemporary dance world. Each of the works generated memorable images, but the overarching impression left by the evening was of the company’s ongoing ability to create a new generation of memorable dancers to carry the Ailey banner to Boston.

I cannot prove the following judgment because I have not seen every dancer on the globe, but I believe that the members of the Ailey troupe are among the best in the world. The Thursday night performance of the dancers, with their passion, commitment, training, and down-right supra-human abilities supports my claim — they are first tier. Whether the choreographer demands stretching out, curling up, flying, or rolling on the floor, as McGregor, Jones, and Barton do at various times in their works, the Ailey dancers deliver whatever is called for with ease. The brilliance of the dancers often transcends the material, whose impact is considerably enhanced their dazzling efforts.

McGregor’s “Chroma” was presented by the Boston Ballet last season. It’s a cool, chic, and abstract work, set to atonal clanging music by Jack White and Joby Talbot. It propels the dancers into positions that require their arms and legs be pulled from their sockets and then twisted into impossible combinations. There’s no emotional affect here; eyes and faces are blank, almost business-like as the dancers walk on and off stage to start and end their duets, trios, or solos. Lots of the movement is delivered at a feverish tempo, but for the sake of no apparent motivation. At the rear of the space, a square stage within a stage serves as a holding place where the dancers wait for their cues. Some of the movement is insect-like: a craning of necks, a wobble of heads, wiggles of torsos. It is as if the dancers were bugs considering a meal or deciding whether or not their partner is friend or enemy.

Lift, Choreography: Aszure Barton. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo: Paul Kolnik

“Lift” Choreography: Aszure Barton. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

A contrast in tone follows: Jones’ “D-Man in the Water, Part I,” which the Ailey company originally premiered in 1989 and revived last year. The piece was created at the end of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic. “D-Man” might refer to a “dead man” in the water of the river Styx, the mythic boundary between life and death. With life-affirming music by Felix Mendelssohn, Jones puts a crowd of friends on stage, a community that loves and laughs together, as if to confirm both loss and renewal. The dancers are dressed in modern battle fatigue costumes, suggesting that they would remain forever young.

“Lift” is a different manner of dance, nearly coming off as a ritual. To a percussive score created by Curtis Macdonald, the work unfolds on a dark stage whose shadows are pierced by white spotlights. Entrances are made by the dancers, who melt onto the stage out of a fog-shrouded background. The men are bare-chested; the women costumed in vaguely African-looking dresses. At first, the simple rhythms are stamped out or clapped by a trio of men; later, eleven men move in more complex tempos, finally joined by seven women. Much of the choreography (at least near the end of the piece) seems to be derived from African tribal dance. A duet for a man and a woman finds her leading him by pressing her face into his bare chest; the dance revolves around a mutual discovery of how and where their bodies fit together. The work is powerful, but not profound, until you consider the strong, honest performances by the large ensemble.

Battle gave a welcoming speech to the audience that brought us into the circle of the Ailey family. He acknowledged how well the company has been received over its long history in Boston. He must have been pleased by the enthusiastic welcome, with cheers and multiple curtain calls at the end of each work, no doubt further fueled by fans of the two local dancers in the company: Kirven Douthit-Boyd, who began his formal dance training at the Boston Arts Academy (he also studied with Jim Viera and Jeanette Neill), and Belen Pereyra who also trained at BAA, graduating as her class valedictorian.


Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).

Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.

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