Heading a repertory company is a challenge. Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Ailey company, must balance the rep between old and new, classics and commissions. How many works by the late Alvin Ailey should appear per season? When does adventurousness get risky?
This season features a premiere by Ronald K. Brown. The company already performs his Grace; he’s a known quantity, and his outflung, African-inspired style offers a contrast to Ailey’s more virtuosic, shape-conscious brand of modern dance. The AAADT is a veritable Christmas tree of tremendous male dancers, so the company imports Hans van Manen’s 1997 Solo, a trio passed around among the men, challenging them to foot-active choreography unlike anything else in the repertory. In a controlled experiment, three Ailey dancers collaborate on Acceptance in Surrender (reviewed last week); it’s always worth trying to dredge up new talent within the ranks. What else? You can imagine Jamison thinking, “Okay, I think we need a new piece that will show off the dancers as spunky individuals acting up together in a realistic setting. I’ll do that one.”
For Jamison’s Reminiscin’, Michael Fagin conjures up a large bar cum dance hall. Off to one side, dancers perch on stools, order drinks, chat (taped voices do the talking). No one but the audience seems to notice the great city view outside the huge windows. The musical selections are drawn from different earlier decades, which may be why costume designer Ann Hould Ward opted for abstraction—bright-colored outfits trimmed with bright-colored ribbon (I wasn’t crazy about them).
There’s a lot of “behavior,” but also a lot of dancing. While Sarah Vaughan sings “Love Me or Leave Me,” two women (Rosalyn Deshauteurs and Courtney Brené Corbin) and their guys (Amos J. Machanic, Jr. and Chris Jackson) swing back and forth between partners, trying to make up their minds how they’d prefer to pair up. Two gorgeous long, tall people, Alicia J. Graf and Jamar Roberts, tangle romantically as Diana Krall caresses Joni Mitchell’s wonderful song, “A Case of You” (as in “I could drink a case of you”). They separate at the end, however, and Graf appears unperturbed when Roberts embarks on an erotic pas de deux with Antonio Douthit to Irving Berlin’s “Always” (sung by Roberta Flack).
In fact, this bar seems to be a place where relationships flare and fizzle. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood acts as some kind of social hostess, making a late entrance to flounce petulantly around to Ella Fitzgerald’s famous “A Tisket A Tasket.” (To banish any notion of the song as an extended double entendre, she’s handed a yellow purse at the end of her solo.)
Like many artistic directors, Jamison may not have enough time to dig deeply into developing her choreographic voice, but now and then in this engaging piece, she comes up with original turns of phrase that make you sit up and take notice.
Brown’s new Ife/My Heart displays his great gift for movement as well as a persistent flaw. He knows how to structure dancing moment by moment, but not how to structure a whole piece to deliver the message he wants us to receive. As in his earlier Grace, the message has to do with spiritual enlightenment and unification. The mix of music suggests a cross-cultural vision. The piece begins with a traditional African prayer and features two selections of African, or re-conceived African, music (the latter recorded by Art Blakey & the Afro Drum Ensemble). Nikki Giovanni’s voice is heard reciting her poem “My House,” and the words for Ursula Rucker’s “Release” mention “the crossroads of life.”
The initial stage picture is pretty stunning. The dancers enter against a red-lit backdrop (lighting by Brenda Gray) wearing different gorgeous white satin outfits by Omatayo Wunmi Olaiya that hint at contemporary styles (they later shed these and appear in underwear—is that supposed to be a metaphor for enlightenment?). Small groups feed into the opening procession in canon, strutting, bouncing into the air, lifting their knees high, flinging their arms. A wonderful roll of the torso pulls them from looking back to moving forward again.
There’s no “story” here, but I’d kind of like to know what’s transpiring. Smallwood, Hope Boykin, Guillermo Asca, and Abdur-Rahim Jackson interact in one corner—some still, some moving. Standing in place, one of them will fling a burst of movement at another, as if trying to jump-start a dialogue or deliver a scolding. There’s a solo for Graf (what a dancer she is!) that keeps her mostly on the floor and wary of something. She dances with two other tall beauties, Clifton Brown and Wendy White Sasser. Deshauteurs and Vernard J. Gilmore are paired. There’s a mildly ritualistic circle with people taking turns soloing in the center, and everyone rejoices at the end. But it’s not clear where they’ve been and where they’re going—culturally, spiritually, or dramatically.
The van Manen piece (staged by Mea van Dijken Venema) is a gem. It’s essentially one long solo to Bach music for unaccompanied violin. Three men, wearing attractive, loosely cut T-shirts and pants by Keso Dekker, spell one another in it, each making repeated long or short forays onto the stage. The mood is playful and teasing, and the movement pits elegance, virtuosity, and mischievous delight against breakneck speed. Rushing on and off, the three men (I saw Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Roberts, and Douthit, and they were all marvels) perform the demanding choreography as if super-alive, heads wagging, bodies twisting and turning, feet busy. Roberts drops into a split-second mime of sparring and polishes it off with a twitch of his hips; in a later appearance, he reels out spins that drop down into a squat and corkscrew up again.
You might think it all sounds a bit too quirky, but van Manen’s choreography binds everything together in a musical flow that makes the men look like bright, strong, charming fellows who’re thrilled to be doing such challenging stuff.
Jamison made a smart move in acquiring this piece. Now maybe she’ll find one to show the women off in a new guise.