Dance Review: Full Houses — Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Each piece was delivered in a different combination of popular dance and modern dance styles; all of them assumed the movement and its staging would express larger and more profound ideas.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Presented by Celebrity Series at the Wang Theater, Boston, MA, March 17 – 20.

AAADT's Jeroboam Bozeman and Chalvar Monteiro in Rennie Harris' Exodus. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

AAADT’s Jeroboam Bozeman and Chalvar Monteiro in Rennie Harris’s “Exodus.” Photo: Paul Kolnik.

By Marcia B. Siegel

Creating mass maneuvers with little to distinguish individual dancers could be a trend in modern dance. All three pieces on the Alvin Ailey company’s program Saturday night called for large contingents of dancers and they all resisted the funky, in-your-face character studies that have dominated the company’s repertory. Each piece was delivered in a different combination of popular dance and modern dance styles; all of them assumed the movement and its staging would express larger and more profound ideas. The audience at the Wang restrained itself, perhaps working its way through the choreography, and saved its cheers till the end of each dance.

The program began with Rennie Harris’s Exodus, for 16 dancers. It had its premiere last spring, shortly after the death of the beloved Ailey dancer Dudley Williams. I don’t know if it was originally intended as a tribute to Williams, but his own spiritual performing could have inspired Exodus and all the pieces on Saturday’s program.

Rennie Harris is known for his hip hop dances, and the movement in Exodus is partly derived from the twisting, multi-directional gyrations of that genre. But this work had few acrobatic tricks and more group patterns than a break-dance show. There may have been a theme of religious conversion (“a necessary step toward enlightenment,” says a press release). If so, the extra-loud volume of the score — a spoken monologue and a house-music take on spirituals — left the words unintelligible to me. Later I retrieved a bit of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” on a tiny Vimeo extract. The dance on stage only conveyed the message of transcendence when, led by the imposing Jeroboam Bozeman, the dancers had exchanged their street clothes for purifying long white tunics and white pants.

What fascinated me was the way Harris integrated his movement sources into a steady, sneaker-clad step dance pattern with active upper bodies. As the group shifted from unison stagings to halting marches, the rhythm was hard to resist.

Ronald K. Brown’s very different rhythm-derived work Open Door ended the program. Starting with jazz piano (the music was mainly by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra), the piece offered five couples in spirited pairs, groups, and solos, led by Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun. Brown’s other works that I’ve seen (Grace has often been performed in Boston by the Aileys, and Brown’s own modern dance company, Evidence, has also visited here) were more overtly uplifting than this party dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in Ronald K. Brown's "Open Door." Photo: Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in Ronald K. Brown’s “Open Door.” Photo: Paul Kolnik.

A note from the press department advises that Open Door also has elevated intentions, connected with the resumption of relations between the US and Cuba, and also with “the power of dance and music as vehicles for culture and compassion.” All this escaped me as I was enjoying the dancing. I missed the references to Santeria too.

Modern dance has always had aspirations to nobler things. On Saturday Robert Battle contributed his No Longer Silent. It was choreographed on students at the Juilliard School in 2007, for a program set to music banned by the Nazis. Its composer, Erwin Schulhoff, perished in a concentration camp in 1942. For this season’s Ailey revival, a note was added to commemorate the closing of the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald 70 years ago.

In this piece as well as those of Harris and Brown, the meaning was buried within the movement. The 18 dancers, dressed in black suits and hoods, used a modern-dance vocabulary with some gestural indications of desperate flight. I thought the music, Schulhoff’s Ogelala, from the mid-1920s, often resembled the threatening dissonances and unexpected rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the dance too brought to mind the Nijinsky choreography of The Rite, as reconstructed in the 1980s by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer.

Battle organized his dancers in sub-groups that kept reassembling into new patterns. The choreographic practice of choral dancing is so rare now that it was a pleasure to see Battle using it. The drawback was that, for all the effectiveness of these orchestrations, the dance added up to a string of climaxes and anticlimaxes; every apparent closure could be followed by another episode.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's "No Longer Silent." Photo :Paul Kolnik.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle’s “No Longer Silent.” Photo: Paul Kolnik.

I felt the menace of the lines of people running very fast in concentric circles, the arrhythmic stomping, the chain-gang lines, the stiff bodies that were carried on the backs of people.

Nicole Pearce’s dramatic lighting wrought many transformations over the space. There’d be sudden blackouts, then the group would reappear in a different formation. There were big surges toward the audience and sudden bright lights aimed into our eyes. After one such assault, the dancers broke their lineup, turned and tiptoed upstage, where they all sat on a low railing that apparently hadn’t been there before. In small groups they’d fold over and scramble forward, then sit on the rail again. Many changes later, the tempo speeded up and the lineup was facing the audience again.

I liked seeing the Ailey dancers working in close unison and avoiding glamorous ego-projections. But a lot of this dance looked familiar. Its pressured modern-dance idiom looked less like Martha Graham than the latter-day efforts of her Israeli descendants Ohad Naharin and Hofesh Schecter.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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