In the Becoming Ailey video opening every performance this 60th Anniversary Season, Alvin Ailey is heard describing how he “always danced” during his childhood in Texas and young adulthood in Los Angeles. His passion led to the founding of an inclusive African-American modern dance company that is a cherished and integral part of American culture. Mr. Ailey died in 1989, but his legacy lives on due to the previous leadership of legendary dancer/Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison and current Artistic Director Robert Battle. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre comprises the main company, their home on West 55th Street that welcomes pre-professional Ailey School students and Ailey Extension dancers of all ages, the Ailey II junior company and an extensive touring schedule that ends every year at New York City Center.
The Thursday, December 15 “Classic Ailey” program began with 1979’s Memoria, a loving tribute to his friend and colleague Joyce Trisler. Program notes mention the dancer/choreographer, ensuring that audiences will always know who she is, and when Ailey School students join the cast, they ensure that the dance will never end. Jacqueline Green’s central figure is vulnerable, unusual for an Ailey female dancer, moving away and against what the others are doing. Following her transcendent departure and entrance of the young dancers, she returns at peace. This is not only expressed by the costume change from white to red or Keith Jarrett’s music, but by her whole being.
Masekela is South African composer Hugh Masekela and Langage “is something that is communicated by or to or between people or groups.” Ailey’s Masekela Lagage is his 1969 response to Apartheid, but is a potent reminder that injustice ignores international and national borders. Set in a soburkwe (beer hall) with a slow-starting jukebox, five women and four men spend time indifferently arguing, fighting and dancing . Their anger never dissipates, despite how the men and women sensuously reach for and then hold each other. This is best illustrated in Morolu, which begins with Constance Stamatiou joyfully dancing with Vernard J. Gilmore, Jeroboam Bozeman and Yannick Lebrun and ends in mistrust despite Masekela’s infectious get-up-and-dance jazz. There is little surprise when the bloodied Samuel Lee Roberts staggers in. The dance ends as it begins with the cast seated looking through the audience asking if this is their normal.
Revelations needs no endorsement. Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece is something everyone should see once because it’s about building community. The three-part exploration of diaspora and faith set to African-American spirituals connects dancers with audiences in ways ballet or other modern dance can’t. Ailey’s persuasive message resonates from the “I Been ‘Buked” opening with the cast wearing simple clay-colored costumes, to the women in pretty long white dresses as they “Wade in the Water” of silk billowing across the length of the stage, and then in the “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” finale with the reunited full cast celebrating at services in their Sunday best.
The dancers clearly enjoy the challenge performing something they are familiar with and succeeding making it look new and amazing. At this performance, Michael Francis McBride, Samuel Lee Roberts, Christopher R. Wilson and Kanji Segawa formed a powerful, virtuoso “Sinner Man” trio that – as Memoria does when all the dancers are about to return – transitions from anger to love.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at New York City Center through December 30, 2018. Information is available on both The Ailey and City Center websites.
Ailey classes are also posted on their website, as are several videos from Revelations.