I don’t think I’ve ever heard a dance audience roar the way people did last night, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed at Copley Symphony Hall. One of the thrills of the show, the first of two Ailey performances here, came from experiencing the audience–younger and more diverse than at many dance shows, and wildly enthusiastic.
The big thrill was the dance. Long acclaimed for having dancers of extraordinary power, the Ailey company has in recent years built a dazzling repertory. Among the works added by Robert Battle, who became artistic director in 2011, is Paul Taylor’s classic “Arden Court,” which kicked off last night’s program.
In “Arden Court,” set to soaring excerpts from symphonies by baroque composer William Boyce, the dancers are forest creatures in dappled tights. Exuding an animal joy, they gobble space in bold, swinging walks or extend their arms in heart-opening diagonals. There are gorgeous adagio balances and bravura jumps by Jermaine Terry. Playful bits suggest English country dancing, just as the title suggests Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden in “As You Like It.”
Taylor made “Arden Court” for his company in 1981, and the Ailey dancers don’t look as at-home in the movement as Taylor’s do. The piece feels elemental, and the Ailey folks supply plenty of earth and fire, but there’s less air and, particularly, less water–Taylor was a swimmer, and you can see it in his men’s chests and shoulders. Nevertheless, the Ailey men are no slouches in upper body power, and the company’s “Arden Court” deservedly provoked cheers.
Last night’s show also included Battle’s “Takademe,” “Home” by hip-hop artist Rennie Harris, and Ailey’s masterpiece, “Revelations.” (In the lineup for tonight are another Battle piece and works by Garth Fagan and up-and-comer Kyle Abraham, as well as “Revelations.”)
“Takademe” (1999) is a solo set to percussive music in which Sheila Chandra uses her voice like a drum. Similarly, dancer Kirven James Boyd finds places in his body–ribs, feet, shoulders–that drum the space. There are no mushy beats; even when the pace gets wild, Boyd moves with sculptural clarity. And in a quieter moment, when Chandra’s voice and Boyd’s chest expand in breath, you realize you need to take a breath, too. Ahhhh.
Harris’s exuberant “Home” opens with 14 dancers standing in a clump, each with one arm extended, like commuters hanging onto overhead straps on a subway. Then a man breaks away and tries to get people’s attention by clapping and strutting–and how could anyone ignore him, since it’s the brilliant Matthew Rushing, who was one of the company’s powerhouse dancers for years and now serves as rehearsal director and guest artist?
Soon everyone’s dancing, and, true to Harris’s hip-hop roots, there are plenty of opportunities for individual dancers to show their chops. And what chops they have! There are kick-steps and rib isolations à la West African dance. Alicia Graf Mack and Antonio Douthit create a little story–they like each other and groove together, then she gets mad at him–that weaves through. The riveting Belen Pereyra does a jump where one leg flicks out and the rest of her body flies to meet it, and then she goes long and vertical and suspends for a moment before coming back to earth. At the end, the dancers become bored commuters again. But do they remember that they’re really a community?
As always when the company is on tour, the program ended with “Revelations” (1960), one of Ailey’s–and dance’s–great works inspired by the struggles of blacks in the south and set to spirituals. I’ve seen this dance more than a dozen times, but the opening image, with the dancers in a phalanx center-stage, never fails to stir me. And when their arms become wings, wow. (Here’s a video about the 50th anniversary of “Revelations” with excerpts showing Ailey dancing.)
To keep “Revelations” fresh for the dancers, the casting changes. Last night, the standout was Mack in the adagio duet (with Jamar Roberts) to “Fix Me, Jesus.” Mack is ballet-trained, a former principal with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and it shows in seemingly effortless unsupported balances and gorgeously arched feet. More than that, she’s 5’10”, and when she does a to-the-roof extension, it really does seem to go to the roof and beyond.
The evening’s one disappointment came when “Revelations” ended, audience members leaped to their feet … and I waited for the final song, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” to repeat, with all of us clapping along. But it didn’t happen! I’m going back tonight, and I’m hoping that this time, we’ll end by rocking, remembering that we are a community.