I’ve been writing about the Ailey company every December for years. Looking back over those reviews, I see that, whether the new choreography is strong or second-rate, I always hymn the dancers. They’re rapacious about movement, about extending their bodies beyond reasonable limits. I imagine their breastbones splitting apart from the passion of it all. This season they’re on the prowl again, scenting new choreography to devour (I’ve used that verb a lot in relation to Ailey performers). Artistic director Judith Jamison commissions pieces that showcase the company’s ardent virtuosity.
Jamison is faithful to Ailey’s vision of a modern-dance repertory company—one that would present not just his dances but classics and new works by others, although disappointingly few of the company’s premieres in recent years have merited or earned long life. Now Jamison has a new scheme: She encourages company members to submit ideas for pieces, insisting—perhaps as a safeguard—that the works be small-scale and that two choreographers collaborate. With Acceptance in Surrender, she got three: Hope Boykin, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, and Matthew Rushing.
Their piece is based on a simple, doable idea: Three “angels” help a suffering, trashed-by-life woman to a better, more serene state, by helping—forcing—her to surrender to a “higher power.” Or her own inner truth. It’s no surprise that the three choreographers can create powerful, effective movement, but they yield to many of the clichés of Aileyana (not all promulgated
by Ailey himself but part of the mythos surrounding the troupe).
For instance, the three terrific men, Glenn Allen Sims, Clifton Brown, and Kirven J. Boyd, flash one by one into solos, Al Crawford’s lights picking them out of darkness as they land onstage. We see their power, their chops, and something of their individuality as dancers in the ways the solos vary hovering and fluttering. What we don’t see, beyond a brief excursion into unison, is any consensus among them. This may be because choreography for Aileyites tends to keep them focusing mostly front.
When Dwana Adiaha Smallwood takes the stage alone, she’s clearly suffering. Philip Hamilton’s music has come to a startling, sudden stop, and soft keyboard sounds usher in his high, ethereal voice (Hamilton and Peter Jones are credited for one composition, with additional music by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway). Smallwood’s mostly on the floor; her body jerks, her feet tremble. Still, it’s hard to view anyone with Smallwood’s exquisite control as weak, and the choreographers haven’t created movement that shows her as awkward or uncertain.
When she lies completely still, the men appear from the darkness at the back of the stage like three lifeguards bent on heroic measures. They straddle her as she propels herself along the floor. They manipulate her in the air. Aside from momentarily butting her head against one of the men’s chests, she gives no sign of responding to what’s going on inside her as a result of their ministrations. Evidently they think she’s doing better, because they leave her to a struggle against unseen forces and line up behind one another at the edge of the stage, making calm patterns with their arms (one pair erect, one bent down, one still lower: a six-armed deity). They seem to pay no attention to her until they think she’s reached another plateau; then they move in to lift her again. This time, she’s rapt, gazing upward—able to join them in their confident steps, ready to be held high, arms outstretched to form a cross.
The choreographers don’t help Smallwood reveal the many emotional changes she must go through. They want to keep her dancing; the pauses for thought, for reassessment, the dynamic variation that might help us to understand fully what she’s going through, don’t exist.
The program I saw included a superb performance by Asha Thomas of Cry, Ailey’s 1971 solo for Jamison. Thomas makes you live with this woman—her trials, her ecstasy in freedom. The nine Ailey stars in a revival of Ulysses Dove’s 1989 Episodes dance the hell out of Dove’s fevered yet stylish encounters along streams of light to the repetitive gasp and thud of Robert Ruggieri’s electronic score, yet the specific dynamics of the passionate, constantly changing partnerships still elude them.