Fifty-six years ago at the 92nd Street Y, a 29-year-old Alvin Ailey unveiled Revelations, the piece that would eventually be seen as his masterwork. Now the foundation of his troupe’s vast repertory, the ballet (as the company refers to it) is a tribute to his upbringing in a Texas Baptist church. Its style blends the modern technique of Ailey’s mentor, Lester Horton, with the range of influences he absorbed from theater and concert dance during the late 1950s in New York.
Last week Revelations closed a show that included the world premiere of Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America, as well as Ronald K. Brown’s Four Corners, from 2013. Abraham’s piece purports to illuminate the impact of the United States prison system on African-American families. It does this with a foreboding sound design (helicopters, percussion, gunshots) by Sam Crawford, overlaid with text from interviews with the incarcerated and their loved ones. A dozen gray-clad dancers blend Abraham’s diverse modern vocabulary with street and hip-hop details, as well as an affecting sequence, familiar from his 2012 work Pavement, in which performers, their hands bound behind their backs, are lowered to the floor. They seek fleeting connections: an embrace, an assisted rise. Their chests bare by the work’s end, the men project both power and helplessness.
This is grim material, amplified by lighting that marks off cramped quarters for the restless inmates or roves like searchlights, and black scrims that rise and fall, cutting people off from one another. The narratives tell of loneliness, despair, regret. The Revelations songs celebrate preparing to die and go to heaven; Untitled America‘s diverse score wallows in earthly sadness and longing.
The impact of the new piece was somewhat diluted by the programming decision to run it immediately after Brown’s dance, which is similar in structure and size. Brown, a decade older than Abraham, has traveled in Africa and infuses Four Corners with a remarkable airborne quality, as if the dancers are being lifted and spun by their very hearts. Brown’s work, though similar in theme to Revelations, foregrounds passionate dancing rather than the subtle, effective music by Carl Hancock Rux, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Yacoub. Its focus seems to be on pleasure in community, its cast of eleven led by gorgeous soloists Linda Celeste Sims, Matthew Rushing, Belen Pereyra, and Glen Allen Sims. To a contemporary eye, Four Corners is the most satisfying piece on this bill.
A few miles downtown, Sonya Tayeh, a Brooklyn-born, Detroit-bred choreographer who’s been providing snippets to So You Think You Can Dance for several years, launched her bewildering, seventy-minute you’ll still call me by name. Her production is accompanied live by indie-folk duo the Bengsons, plus additional percussionists, a cellist, and singer Jo Lampert — notably all women except Shaun McClain Bengson. Tayeh mobilizes ten downtown and commercial dancers, clad in identical dark pants and sleeveless mock-turtlenecks (the better to display their muscular arms), in a hybrid style she has dubbed “combat jazz.” Motifs of struggle begin the piece, the abrupt, broken phrasing reminiscent of hip-hop, less attentive to action than to pose. Incantatory text joins the music in obfuscating any narrative through-line; though publicity had implied a struggle between a mother and a daughter, all I could see were two long-haired, sturdy blondes grappling with attraction and anger.
Oddly similar in its concerns to Ailey’s Revelations, Tayeh’s work exhibits no crispness or clarity. Periodically, the dancers curl up on the floor for brief rests. A program note quotes Kahlil Gibran on themes of joy and sorrow. The Bengsons’ lyrics call God’s name, describe trees growing out of people’s chests. Perhaps Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, should recruit Tayeh to make a piece for his ensemble; she needs a knowledgeable outside eye, and he might be able to provide it.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Through December 31
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street
Through December 17