Lit Up for Christmas

Two African American companies take on diverse choreographic challenges and win big

Lord, they're gorgeous! Sleek, lithe, powerful.

The Ailey dancers don't just take space, they devour it, inflame it. Every piece gets solid- gold treatment.

Jennifer Muller's new Footprints for them has luster of its own, especially in the opening and closing passages. These are so strong that the diffuse middle is acutely disappointing. To embody her theme—while pursuing a goal, we're often diverted—Muller creates the potent image of a line, sometimes a shape-shifting cluster, of 10 dancers traveling slowly along a diagonal from one corner of the stage to its distant opposite. Often they turn their gazes, or are pulled back toward their starting point. The magnificent Renee Robinson, a guide and conscience, tries to keep them on track. The rich dancing is harnessed to both this yearning for change and fear of it. At the end, with Karen Small's creamy costumes turned inside out to become bright-colored, they've reached that far corner. Only one looks back.

Cream of the crop, in Muller's Footprints
photo: Richard Termine
Cream of the crop, in Muller's Footprints

Details

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
City Center
135 West 55th Street, 212.581.1212
Through January 4

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company
BAM Harvey Theater
December 9 through 12

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That one is Linda Celeste Sims, and Muller abandons the magnetic diagonal, having the others retreat into any old wing to leave the stage to Sims, Jamar Roberts, and, shortly, others. It's never clear how the increasingly elaborate trios and duets relate to falling by the wayside, nor what eventually draws them back to their path. Lawrence Nachsin's eclectic score compounds the problem, expressing changing moods above a relentless beat that seems to lead nowhere.

Sims is also featured in Lynn Taylor-Corbett's 2002 Prayers From the Edge. She and Clifton Brown (both compelling) are the Romeo and Juliet in a conflict of hostile contiguous tribes that, given Peter Gabriel's music (from the film Passion) and Judanna Lynn's fanciful harem costumes, suggests a time-out-of-mind version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A "Prayer for Rain" led by Amos Machanic Jr. subtly unites the two groups, which can pass between each other's ranks unnoticed; but only the lovers and Asha Thomas, who befriends Sims, truly cross the cultural boundaries (hard to grasp since both tribes dance alike). Sims and Brown are as charmingly naive in their courtship as the teenage Montague and Capulet scions. When the enraged Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines successfully pins an attack by two of Brown's tribal brothers on the innocent Brown, a long dramatic pursuit ensues. Taylor-Corbett's sense of theater helps transcend the more literal moments. The evening rocks home to Abraham's bosom in Ailey's timeless Revelations, but the true revelations are the dancers.


It seems fitting that the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company should celebrate the centennial of two prominent native sons, Wilbur and Orville Wright, by commissioning six choreographers to create works loosely inspired by the idea of flight. DCDC's late founder, Jeraldyne Blunden, like the Wrights, knew all about struggling for her dream—a company of African American dancers in a Midwest city.

Those dancers responded beautifully to the styles of the choreographers brought in by artistic director Kevin Ward: Bill T. Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Warren Spears, Dwight Rhoden, Bebe Miller, and Doug Varone. On Program A, for Jones's splendid and before . . ., six of them dance with the precision and almost businesslike fervor his work demands. Especially brilliant is the comradely duet for Daniel Marshall and Alvin Rangel. Hand-in-hand, sometimes in skater's position, they build quick-footed unison patterns into bolder supports. The diamond outlines on the floor, Robert Wierzel's lighting and the silhouettes it casts on the backdrop, the rich flow of a Bach chaconne for cello, the simple costumes by Bette Kelley, and the dancing all bring to mind a community in transition. Sometimes the performers stand outside the diamond, leaning forward as if sighting over a precipice. The choreography's pockets of simultaneous forthright activity, its moments when the group unites to lift an individual member, and its mysterious yet believable events are like moves on a board game whose purpose they don't yet fully understand.

The theme of Zollar's Eurydice's Flight, to Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" and "Sketches of Spain," involves not aspiration toward but flight from, and requires high drama from its cast. This Eurydice, the superb Sheri "Sparkle" Williams, is trapped in a relationship with her Orpheus (Rangel) in which clichés of preening sexuality give way to abusive behavior. But the Hades to which death releases her (glimpsed via Scott Borowka's red lighting and Williams's hand-held flashlight) doesn't seem like a great place to be reborn. Faceless embracing souls roll about in the dimness, and Zollar's cryptic handling of the ending—the brief return to earth, the descent again to the other world—leaves questions hanging.

Spears, who has been working in Denmark since 1982, requires of seven men athleticism and perfect unison. His 1996 On the Wings of Angels is a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, a heroic African American World War II unit. Literal salutes and the donning of imaginary caps notwithstanding, Spears abstracts and embellishes a variety of drills and missions through an elegant use of spatial design, timing, and highly appropriate music by John Adams and Steve Reich. One of his greatest accomplishments is the use of canon and follow-the-leader to show how these men carry out their tasks by example and close bonding rather than by external command alone. The Airmen's "flight" was also a spiritual journey, rendered more impressive by the racial prejudice they had to transcend.

 
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