Lights Up! Alvin Ailey’s Gang Turns 50

Here’s my daydream. I’m walking along 8th Street and meet the ghost of Alvin Ailey. He looks gorgeous—just the way he did when I ran into him over 30 years ago in the same place. “Alvin,” I say, “did you know that on the opening night of your company’s 50th anniversary season—in honor of it—the top part of the Empire State Building was bathed in gold light?” He looks astounded, thinks I’m kidding (the dance grapevine must not work well where he is). “And,” I add, “they’ve created a special Alvin Ailey Barbie® doll; she’s posed in her box as if she’s doing those upflung leaps in Revelations’ ‘Take Me to the Water’ section, and she’s wearing the correct, flouncy white dress for it.” He falls on the pavement laughing. But you know what? He’s thrilled.

He needn’t have been all that surprised. At the time of his death in December 1989, his company had already come a long, long way from the pick-up group he assembled for a Sunday afternoon concert in March 1958 at the 92nd Street Y. His works and his dancers had already been applauded all over the world—although maybe not in all the 71 countries they’ve appeared in to date.

This half-century celebration is huge. After artistic director Judith Jamison gives the speech that opens the City Center gala, honorary chair Oprah Winfrey comes onstage to talk. Jessye Norman, one of several guest musicians of note that first night, sings Revelations’ “Fix Me Jesus.” During the “Ailey & Ellington” week (December 17 through 21), Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will accompany dances that Ailey, Talley Beatty, and Donald McKayle set to the Duke’s music. Reinforcing AADC’s identity as a repertory company, new works are being programmed, along with classics like Ailey’s Blues Suite—which premiered on that 1958 program Ailey shared with Ernest Parham—and Revelations, which has brought audiences to their feet since 1960. Many works (or highlights from them) by a variety of choreographers are on view.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Hope Boykin’s "Go in Grace"
Paul Kolnik
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Hope Boykin’s "Go in Grace"

Details

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
City Center
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212
December 3 through January 4

The centennial spills over into 2009 with performances at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in May, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June, and in over 30 U.S. cities. AADC toured Europe this past fall. (I hope you’re listening, Alvin. I don’t want to bore you with stats, but this is something!)

The two premieres are Go in Grace, by company member Hope Boykin, and Festa Barocca by the in-demand Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti. I saw the first on a program it shared with Ailey’s 1979 Memoria and Revelations. Boykin, a knockout dancer, is still a novice in terms of choreography; her first piece, Acceptance in Surrender, performed by AADC in 2005, was a collaboration with two colleagues, Abdur-Rahim Jackson and Matthew Rushing. Go in Grace was a difficult assignment (a press release mentions the “collaborative concept” of Jamison). The piece tells the story of a family sustained by the love among parents and children and between them and the community. The strongest thing about it is the onstage singing-dancing-acting presence of the six wonderful women of Sweet Honey in the Rock (Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, and Sign Language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton). Even though serious overamplification does them no service, their voices are indeed honeyed, and their personas sweet (if no-nonsense tough and often witty).

These performers weave among and around the dancers—their voices exhorting, consoling, inspiring; sometimes they all talk softly at once, like neighbors comparing their views. They approve of the family members; they’re good people, even if the father (Amos J. Machanic Jr.) is a bit straitlaced. However, his wife (Renee Robinson), son (Matthew Rushing), and daughter (Rosalyn Deshauteurs) seem happy to hold his hand and walk in a chain behind him. They make a handsome picture in their yellow and orange clothes (costumes by Boykin), and Al Crawford’s lighting makes the stage a sunny place (although the several designs projected on the cyclorama are unattractive and not very relevant). The main thrust of the story is that of the daughter’s growing up (indicated by changes of attire and an increasingly bold style of dancing).

Boykin does a fine job of mingling the two groups and of revealing through steps and simple gestures the parents’ affection for each other and their kids, the daughter’s adoration of her father, and the well-behaved son’s attraction to the boisterous style of two less “respectable” neighborhood “boyz.” These guys (Antonio Douthit and Kirven J. Boyd) don’t initially “act.” They just kite through repeatedly, doing the most vivid and interesting steps in the piece. It’s no wonder Rushing wants to join them and gradually does so, to the distress of his dad. Boykin gives us a hint that the father, too, once knew how to move like that and be that hard-hitting, but when he’s alone onstage and tries a few of the boys’ steps, he doubles over (presaging a subsequent fatal heart attack).

The tale of Go in Grace is a sweet one. The two neighborhood guys aren’t really bad; they’re on hand to comfort the bereaved family. The wife soothes away her son’s guilt (he worries that anger at him caused his father’s death). The daughter sees a brief vision of the deceased (now clothed in white) and can draw on the memory of all he taught her (a father-daughter ballroom-dance lesson is very charming). And everything that Boykin truthfully and movingly sketches through her terrific dancers is buoyed up by those big-voiced, big-hearted neighbors, who are as adaptable and strong as the tides of the sea.

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