Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre – Vespers, Shining Star, Caught, Burlesque, Love Stories

When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater hits the road, they bring with them a treasure-chest of choreography, from the staples, like Ailey’s classic, 1960 piece, Revelations, to brand-new works funded by the "Ailey New Choreography Initiative," sponsored by AT&T. With the Dance Theatre of Harlem basically defunct now, Alvin Ailey is the de facto representative of African-American culture, at least on the stage. Every dance is meaningful on several levels, and every dancer is superb.

On an annual two-week visit to Berkeley, where the company performs at the University of California’s Zellerbach Hall, the choreographic offerings were representative of many of the top American modern dance choreographers, black and otherwise, from the 1960’s on. Ailey’s connection, all the way back, to the work of Martha Graham is kept alive in many pieces featuring the striking and now nearly obsolete technique of that choreographic genius, whose work so strongly featured floorwork, and her famous "contractions," the initiation of movement from a nearly violent sucking- in of the abs and pelvis. Things in modern dance are a lot more ballet-looking these days, as the money for modern choreographers is in the commissions for big ballet companies in practically every city. There was some of that on display in Berkeley, as well.

You’ve got to hand it to Judith Jamison, the once leading dancer who took over the reins after Ailey’s death in 1989, and has stayed-on ever since. She has her ego in check–not every program features a Jamison piece (her work is often interesting thematically, but rarely choreographically). And she does an excellent job of skating the programming line that keeps bringing in audiences (new pieces featured the music of Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire and Louis Armstrong) while sprinkling legitimately "serious" stuff into nearly every program.

Vespers (1986), choreographed by Ulysses Dove, supplied liberal amounts of woman power. Although the title implied religious content, and the dance featured an all-female cast of black-frocked women with chairs, this was no bunch of rapturous bible thumpers. Here, with a post-modernist movement style, featuring strong gestural phrases, a side-facing focus and a lot of waiting, along with a driving, percussive musical score by Mikel Rouse, choreographer Ulysses Dove was clearly more interested in portraying the hard knock school of life over some quaint delusional exercise about salvation.

Shining Star (2004) opened promisingly, creating a striking image with a blast of lights (effective throughout the piece thanks to Howell Binkley) music (R & B hits by Earth, Wind & Fire) and a tableau for the cast of ten in John Travolta-themed disco white (costumes were by Ann Hould-Ward). What became apparent within a matter of minutes, however, was that the slower 70’s rhythms of even the most catchy of the group’s jazz-soul-funk hits made the creation of dynamic dancing challenging, at least in the hands of choreographer David Parsons.

Parsons was also represented on the program with his stunning signature piece, the solo, Caught (1982). Where this piece also featured a gimmick (strobe lighting and black-outs isolating jumps, leaving the gorgeous dancer Clifton Brown in mid-air for much of the piece), the gimmick effectively created something memorable. The opposite was true in Shining Star. Either Parsons was cowed by the familiarity of the music and its slower tempos, or the lack of tension in this happy, party scene of a dance just didn’t press his buttons. In any case, Shining Star left a bunch of talented dancers looking somewhat foolish, with little more to do much of the time than stand around and vamp to some oldies. It was Saturday night without the fever.

Burlesque, (2002) by Donald Byrd, offered a more twisted music visualization, moving back in time to present the early jazz of Louis Armstrong, but definitely approaching things with a new-millenium, jaded/satirical point-of-view. Moving across a row of footlights, past an elaborate red velvet curtain and all the way upstage, to a bare, ugly wall, the dance was a vaudevillian blend of backstage and onstage, of performance and satire. Burlesque is a quirky, sometimes static work that is rich and inventive in theatrical detail, but much less generous in kinesthetic bounty. With dancers clad in whorehouse fashion, bowler hats, feather boas and garter belts (the costumes by Emilio Sosa were one of the strongest elements of the piece), Byrd seemed as much influenced by Cabaret , Chicago and Threepenny Opera as he was by the 1920’s blues, stomps, crawls and rags that kept rolling out.

There were great opportunities for the dancers to stretch their dramatic muscles, and the eight cast members, all luminaries from the company (including Matthew Rushing, Glenn Allen Sims, Abdur-Rahim Jackson and Clifton Brown in some brilliant, fleeting moments of virtuosity) were funny and crisp, every characterization as clear as a comic-strip. Unfortunately, the ambience and bite of the piece began to wear off after the fourth song or so. There was no development, nowhere for all this theatricality to go. Burlesque was eight Louis Armstrong pieces, a chorus line of eager misfits taking turns in the spotlight, and chairs, to wait on. Appropriately, the final song was "Melancholy."

Love Stories (2004), with music by Stevie Wonder, might have been one of those Greatest Hits-style audience favorites, rolling out song after song and dance after dance. Instead, a total of three songs ("Fingertips," "If It’s Magic," and "Another Star") are interspersed in a dreamy sound collage (by Darrin Ross) that includes quotes from Ailey himself, street noise, and a section that pulsates with the rhythms of house music and hip hop. Jamison choreographed the opening and final moments of the piece, but brought in choreographers Robert Battle and Rennie Harris and offered each one almost half of the artistic pie. The result, like the company itself, is a unique blend of voices, united by the commitment and joy with which the amazing company dancers bring to the piece.

Love Stories opens with Clifton Brown in a soft, playful, throw-away solo, with stop and start phrasing designed to look as if he were improvising to a Wonder song. Soon, other dancers wander on and mingle, as if getting ready to start morning class. From here, it’s onto some competitive duets (Asha Thomas gets the nod for her fierce dancing here and throughout the piece) and the onset of a hip hop beat. Rennie Harris takes over as choreographer for this "street" section, and his artistry takes street dancing and club moves and manipulates them in space to create something that looks like the best music video ever made. Harris not only knows what to do with rhythm and theatrical space, he knows what to do with dancers. Abdur-Rahim Jackson and Thomas looked absolutely on fire.

Robert Battle’s chunk of Love Stories brought out the dancers in hot-colored coveralls, as if they were aspects of a relentless sun in Alvin Ailey’s Texas childhood. References to Ailey’s work were everywhere, in Revelations wedges and chain-gang lines. True Ailey aficionados could have a field day playing "name that movement." A more somber and "modern dancey" approach to things compared to Harris’ populist, club and party moves, the section brought things back to where they had started. Love Stories is both nostalgic and hip, it brings things nicely up-to-date. It is a tribute to Ailey himself, (who died in 1989), but also to the artistic health of the organization.

Santa Fe, NM
Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For culturevulture.net, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."