Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley
February 28-March 4, 2007
“The Golden Section” (1982) Choreography by Twyla Tharp Music by David Byrne, Costumes Santo Louasto, Lighting Jennifer Tipton
Watching the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s “B” Company taking over the spotlight at a matinee performance in Berkeley on March 4, was frustrating and fascinating in equal measure. The proto-typical Ailey dancer is strong, gorgeous and African-American (although there have always been exceptions) and dances like a blaze of fire. Thanks (or not) to the company school, every dancer on stage is irreversibly imbued with this movement branding, a muscley, earth-hugging aesthetic littered with sky-high kicks. Ailey dancers who make it to the A team, however, all have something extra—not just the ability to thrash, jiggle and burn through any piece of choreography by any choreographer, but to add a little of themselves to every step. It takes years of dancing “Revelations”, (the gospel crowd-favorite based on Ailey’s own memories of life in the South) for example, before the religious conversion actually occurs– when a particular solo begins to look not just inspired, but holy. The B team, which fills-in on matinees and weeknights, spelling the veterans, has a lot going for it, just not the golden glow that surrounds the stars of the company. Watching the B Company, however, is a glimpse of the future.
Seeing newer, or less-favored dancers dancing the roles that Matthew Rushing, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, Clifton Brown, Asha Thomas and Linda Celeste Sims were either cast in, have inherited, or taken-over, points out not any particular technical inferiority in the B-people, just a lack of the above-mentioned self-confidence and panache. The dangerous line that every Ailey dance lives on,—between “big” on the one hand, and “cartoonish”, on the other, is unfortunately crossed with frequency during the beginning of pieces, before the new guys have warmed-up to the audience and relaxed into the movement. Both Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section”, an excerpt from her 1983 “The Catherine Wheel”, and a new piece, “Gamelan Gardens, (2006)” choreographed by Karole Armitage, suffered from this syndrome. It could have been the duet-heavy choreography that opened each piece, (both dances became more interesting in their group sections) but the dancers were over-the-top from the first instant, too much too soon, as if trying to force their way into the good graces of the audience by making every step more spectacular than it was meant to be,. Fortunatlely, things got better from there.
With the two newer dances (the program closed with the 1960 “Revelations”, which earned cheers of audience recognition from its first, haunting images to the foot-stomping finale), one can only imagine how the veterans might have approached things. Tharp’s “Catherine Wheel” (which refers to an instrument of torturous execution) was an evening-length piece with music y David Byrne, but the “golden section” on display is like the wedding scene at the end of “Sleeping Beauty”, a bunch of celebratory dancing at the end of a long narrative. Tharp, who made her quirky, smart modern dance look more and more balletic over the years, must have had an interesting reaction to the Ailey version of her work–all that clean, smirky and quick movement being done by dancers who sell, sell, sell. Again, the B-cast was gorgeous, full of good-to-great dancers, all of them, but they all lacked that stuck-up, self-involved, inward-outward quality of the original cast. They should have hired Shelley Washington (a legendary black Tharp dancer) to coach.
“Gamelan Gardens” was supposed to be post-modern. Armitage has cultivated an “out-of-exile” persona in the dance world, fleeing New York for several financially supportive outposts in Europe during the 90’s, after a splashy decade doing punk-ballet collaborations with her ex-huz, the painter David Salle, (one memorable scenic element was a giant handgun, which floated above one of her dances, but never went off). Not unlike Tharp, this was an opportunity for the Ailey B dancers to look miscast early-on. A solo couple’s thematic offerings were gimmicky and uninvolving, a kind of cat-mouse game onstage to a gamelan and violin orchestral score by Lou Harrison. Only later, when diagonals of chorus members wearing flowing white garments overlapped amidst the musical cacophony, did things finally come together.