This season marks the 50th Anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s return to Cal Performances. This sustained and mutually beneficial relationship with Cal Performances represents the very best between arts organizations and is truly reason for celebration. As part of this spring’s residency, the company offered three programs, all ending with their iconic dance, “Revelations” –now 58 years old.
Program B (April 11, 12, & 15) offered three works by its current Artistic Director Robert Battle; “Mass”, “Ella”, “The Hunt” and included “Shelter” by Jowale Willa Jo Zollar. “Shelter” (1988) with its six female dancers approached the relevant topic of homelessness offering the most social commentary on the evening. “I see myself making a wrong turn and falling down, down, down off the margin…between a rock and a hard place at the intersection of reduced resources and reverberating rage…” went the voice-over narrative that was often drowned out by drumming. Dancers who were dressed in faded earth-toned street clothing with their hair down and full afros flowing, began the piece with a substantial amount of aimless walking, falling, and huddling before it breaking away from the weight of its subject into all-out rage and thunderous dancing.
“The Hunt” (2001), which followed, was “Shelter’s” obvious compliment with a grouping of six muscular shirtless male dancers wearing Mia McSwain’s handsome floor-length black skirts with contrasting red lining. The men naturally competed, sparring, flexing, and shooting down their adversaries before dramatically dragging their trophies across the stage. The tone of the dance was tribal, a ritualized and romanticized combat that rode a singular note of testosterone energy from beginning to end, driven by loud drumming and bursts of vibrant solos in the middle.
“Ella” (2008), like all of these dances sticks tightly to the one or two word titles that restricts them from offering much in the way of nuance, variety, and dimension, instead was riding a singular stream of high-spirited energy. With “Ella,” the mostly wordless scat jazz singing of Ella Fitzgerald propelled Megan Jakel and Jacquelin Harris into a buoyant frenzy perfectly in synch with each other, falling and leaping up from the stage as fast as Ella can vocalize her trumpet sounding notes. The piece was originally choreographed as a solo but became a duet in 2016 and despite Jakel and Harris being a complimentary matched, Harris’ beautiful charisma and talent ate up the stage.
“Mass” (2004) also holds closely to its title but is the most nuanced as it creates formations based on church choirs with its heavenly liturgical lighting (Burke Wilmore design.) Wearing stylized, flame-colored choir robes (Fritz Masten), the 16-member ensemble produces flock-like configurations that divide and fold into one another, at times cresting like a wave. Within this choral drill team, solos pop up as individual gestures and gyrations before being swept back into the congregation.
And then there was “Revelations”(1960) with all its soulful gospel, southern black heritage, and gut-wrenching spiritual longing that manages over and over again the mythic, the poetic, dancing the nuances of hope and sorrow. Starting with its inspired Martha Graham-like tableau to its gospel driven fan waving and “Wade in the Water”/“I’ve seen the promise land” baptism. “Revelations” continues, and will continue, to convert even non-believers of every generation to say “Amen!”
David E. Moreno