Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Berkeley

Continuing the tradition of its founder, this company showcases a jazzy, fast, and joyous style of movement while highlighting the African American experience.

Mixed bill, including works by Talley Beatty and Matthew Rushing
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Calif.
March 29 – April 3, 2016

The Alvin Ailey troupe is back at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall looking as good as ever — maybe even a little better.

Under the artistic direction of Robert Battle, this large, well-disciplined group of dancers continues the tradition of its founder, and his successor, the great dancer Judith Jamison, in showcasing works that document or shed light on the African American experience. Plus a little more. Program C featured the great American choreographer Paul Taylor’s 1997 Piazzolla Caldera, a colorful tango collage that had no message and no agenda except the sheer joy of Argentine-style dance for its own sexy sake.

Not so some of the other works on the program: Talley Beatty’s “Toccata,” set to Dizzy Gillespie’s rendering of a score by the Argentine-born film composer Lalo Schifrin; Ailey’s own “Cry,” a 1971 solo created for Jamison, here beautifully delivered by Linda Celeste Sims; and, finally, “Odetta,” by Ailey stalwart Matthew Rushing. And a word about that first.

I opted for Program C, which will be repeated Saturday, in order to avoid Ailey’s “Revelations,” which seems to have ended every program ever presented by this company. Sure it is a masterpiece, a crowd-pleaser and a lot of fun. But, enough is enough. I have had my soul rocked “in the bosom of Abraham” so often it may never wake up. But Rushing’s “Odetta”, an homage to the great African-American folk singer seemed to be a tribute to his mentor as well, with many familiar touches of “Revelations” creeping into the corners. It’s a good piece, like “Revelations” a little too long and a little too preachy, but the sound bites from Odetta herself and Stephen Alcorn’s sometimes-incomprehensible projections tend to diminish what power it has.

But it has power, no where stronger than in the fantastic “John Henry,” wonderfully performed by the loose-limbed Jeroboam Bozeman. Unfortunately, this was one of her hits that Odetta grew to hate because of its chain-gang connections, and the subsequent voiceover mitigated the dancing that had gone before. And it has lyricism in “Cool Water,” a flowing duet for Elisa Clark and Collin Hayward (who has to be the most gorgeous specimen of manhood on the planet). And humor, such as “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” performed with Harry Belafonte (on recording) which I used to sing to my children back in the 1970s. Here it is a very funny exchange between the seated Jacquelline Green and Yannick Lebrun that tells buckets about men and women.

But “Masters of War” and “Freedom Trilogy” went on too long and too melodramatically and, by the end, (“This Little Light of Mine”) I was as heartily sick of “Odetta” as “Revelations.”

The highlight of the evening was the powerful “Cry,” with soloist Sims clad in a white flowing dress with a long scarf, which she used to advantage, sometimes scrubbing the floor with it, sometimes wrapping it around her head like a slave’s turban. The sinuous dancer paces like a caged animal, beating at invisible walls. Her hands flutter like birds longing to fly free. She goes from sadness to fierce anger and defiance then back again before breaking into a joyful, exuberant, high-kicking Gospel dance. Dedicated by Ailey “to all black women everywhere — especially our mothers,” it encapsulates the African-American female experience in motion.

Paul Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera” is not one of his great creations, but it’s fun to watch and the music, by Astor Piazzolla, the acknowledged master of the tango, and Jerry Peterburshsky, is a tonic for the ear. The indefatigable Sims, fresh from her star turn in “Cry,” led the company in a series of sexy Argentine moves with Rachel McLaren a standout as the girl who can’t seem to get a partner, no matter how hard she tries. Unfortunately, it also boasts a duet for two sleepy guys that goes from macho posturing to a kind of bromance for no reason at all.

And there is no reason for Beatty’s “Tocatta” except the sheer joy of it. Jazzy, fast, set to Schifrin’s propulsive score, interspersed with a brief lyrical duet or a number straight out of a Broadway show, this ensemble piece showcases the Ailey troupe at its best. And, at its best, it can’t be beat.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”