The Other Virtuosity

Packaged in Moonlight, Packaged in Moss

During Alvin Ailey's later years, he seemed torn between showing off the virtuosity of his tremendous company and fostering human drama. As the technical ante for dancers rises, the split becomes more obvious. Ailey dancers tend to make everything look as big and strong as possible. This works wonderfully for Ron Brown's Grace, currently being performed during the company's City Center season (through December 31). The piece may be too drawn out, its message of spiritual redemption blurred, but the dancers, led by the superb Linda-Denise Evans, tear thrillingly into Brown's African-influenced movement—powerful, inventive, and shaped by an interesting rhythmic sense.

What the audience responds to in Carmen de Lavallade's new Sweet Bitter Love is subtler. This is a duet (expanded from an earlier solo that de Lavallade made for herself) about a love affair that is ending. The songs voiced by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway are sweetly rueful, as if the breakup were inevitable. The choreographer shuns passionate pleadings and violent pushings-aside. Renee Robinson leans to slide her cheek against Glenn A. Sims's inattentive shoulder, and I catch my breath at the truth she brings to the tiny moment. There are several sides to virtuosity; one has to do with finesse in details.

Geoffrey Holder's costumes—a swirling, pale blue evening dress for Robinson, a skintight black suit for Sims—place the couple at a party or a nightclub. Regret and good manners restrain anger and despair. When the man is alone, frustration wracks him; when the woman is alone, her movements become larger and wilder; but together they hesitate, reach out, draw back, kiss lightly. Robinson is magnificent. Sims, so terrific in Grace, still misses some of the nuances. He looks uncomfortable, as if the choreography were constricting his urge to move big.

End of the affair: Glenn A. Sims and Renee Robinson in Sweet Bitter Love at Ailey
photo: Ellen Krane
End of the affair: Glenn A. Sims and Renee Robinson in Sweet Bitter Love at Ailey

Jamison's recent Double Exposure gives fiery roles to the marvelous Jeffrey Gerodias and Clifton Brown as two rivals, or perhaps alter egos, and to Briana Reed, Rosalyn Sanders, and Tina Williams. But as they dance amid a barrage of elaborate, pulsing video designs (by Art in Commerce), which include footage from little cameras held by performers, I sense that Jamison intended meanings that don't come through. The women flock like the Three Fates, or perhaps they're aspects of the same woman (hard to convey in dance). Everyone looks at everyone else with awe and wonder, as if to say, "My God! What is he doing?" Search me. The troubled, impassioned dancing has its effect, but the absence of that other aspect—nuances of mood and narrative—turns the piece into a guessing game.


Everyone looks at everyone else with awe and wonder, as if to say, "My God! What is he doing?" Search me.


When Brooklyn's old Majestic Theater, now the BAM Harvey, first reopened as a provocatively beautiful ruin, it housed Peter Brook's astonishing production of the Mahabharata. The traces of ocher and viridian pigment clinging to its walls still remind me of India. But the theater, for all its vividness, metamorphoses slyly. In Eiko and Koma's When Nights Were Dark, earlier this month, blackness, shot with beams of pale light or flickering fire, turned it into primal forest.

Jeff Fontaine contributed to the lighting concept, and Scott Poitras directed it, but the two Japanese choreographers made the set: a gigantic mound of what looks like ancient earth and twisted roots, with a dead tree and Spanish moss above and caves below. Recently they traveled around the country performing a barely moving piece on a caravan whose sides let down, and around which spectators could walk; now they and their habitat turn at a snail's pace while we stay in our seats.

Like many of the couple's works, When Nights Were Dark seems to depict an eons-ago world in which people are almost indistinguishable from their environments; their pale forms sink into leaves, merge with tree trunks. Joseph Jenkins's wordless score, softly hummed and vocalized by the five Praise Choir Singers, sounds like the insects, wind, and water that might have inspired music back when humans replaced dinosaurs.

Eiko and Koma often make you feel a terrible tension drawing them together—slowly, falteringly, inexorably. When they stand like saplings, swaying and leaning toward each other or toward the mound, you can believe that arriving at a destination will take all night. But in the aftermath of a blackout, their environment slowly rolls toward the audience with them on it. As it revolves, they may rise from its depths or sink and later reappear under its roots. Their clothing vanishes. Like snakes, they keep their twisting, crawling bodies close to the mossy surface; this is their home, their place of safety. Yet their gestures toward each other are abortive. Near the end, they rise up slightly and jam their faces together. She falls away from him, and they sink down in the moss. They are, finally, clumsily, in each other's arms as the mound slides away into darkness.

 
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