The Robert Battle era at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is in full swing. Battle has been artistic director of the inimitable company since 2011, when he succeeded the sublime Judith Jamison, who succeeded Ailey himself. It’s a big job, to keep the fabulous style of the Ailey company intact while introducing new work by choreographers of different sensibilities. The careful progression of change has paid off: this year’s appearance by the company at Carolina Performing Arts shows the AAADT in thrilling form. There will be a second program tonight, Feb. 25, which as always, will close with the staple Revelations, but also will include two different works not danced last night. As of 9:30 this morning, the show is scheduled to go on, despite predictions of snow, but check the website later if you plan to go.
The program in Memorial Hall on Feb. 24 opened with a song-cycle work choreographed by Matthew Rushing. Odetta (2014) uses brief audio interview clips of the late great Odetta (1930-2008) judiciously mixed with several of her songs (written by various artists). In the manner of Revelations, Odetta is illustrative, sometimes quite literally, but compelling nonetheless, and the costuming by Dante Baylor is glorious. Led off by the radiant Hope Boykin (from Durham, NC) with heart-bursting warmth and transportive whirls, the song cycle begins with “This Little Light of Mine.” One of the pleasures of AAADT’s annual appearance in Chapel Hill is that we can follow the dancers’ arcs. Boykin has been with the company since 2000, and in the intervening years we’ve seen her move from the back of the ensemble to front and center, her light shining more and more brightly.
Being of an age to have listened to a lot of Odetta (including up close and personal around the piano when Durham’s Carolina Theatre reopened after renovations), I found it thrilling to the point of tears that Rushing and the Ailey company are returning the spirit of Odetta to the stage. The song cycle goes on to include the almost-too-cute “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” but gets more serious after that, with “Motherless Children,” and moves on to a powerfully staged dance to Odessa’s blistering version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and some further explorations of ideas of freedom. I expect this piece will remain in the Ailey repertory.
The second piece on the 24th was the one that signaled Robert Battle’s assurance as artistic director. Suspended Women was choreographed in 2000 by Jacqulyn Buglisi and came into the Ailey repertory in 2014. Literal it is not. For 15 women and four men gorgeously costumed by A. Christina Giannini, it is set to the second movement (Adagio assai) of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, with “interpolations” by the brilliant Daniel Bernard Roumain (recorded music). The dance, under Clifton Taylor’s mysterious lighting, is spellbinding: etched with foreboding, crosshatched with travail, resistance and small victorious assertions of personal freedom. It’s one of those rare pieces that feels as if it started long ago and is going on forever offstage–we see a timeless scene through the proscenium window. This is communicated partly by a mesmerizing sequence that repeats throughout: relevé/demi-plié/relevé/torso twist/skirt swish/relevé… It’s worth going here to see images and a video clip. This dance will not be repeated tonight, but be on the lookout for an opportunity to see it.
Revelations, even after many viewings (I’ve lost count) remains compelling. This was, in fact, an unusually fine performance of the Ailey classic first performed in 1960. The dancing by Akua Noni Parker and Michael Jackson, Jr. of “Fix Me, Jesus” in particular was a study in emotional power and aesthetic perfection, and Matthew Rushing’s solo to “I Wanna Be Ready” radiated a stunning honesty. And of course, before we left, and before the company was allowed to leave the stage, everybody’s soul was rocked in the bosom of Abraham. Looking around the audience, I could see that race, creed, color, country of origin and gender preference make no difference. We all want to dance in the light of love.