The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, about to celebrate its sixtieth birthday, is the repository of some of the best dancers in the country, and is accumulating a repertory worthy of their skill. The company’s “all-new” evening, seen Saturday night and returning December 22, 23, and 31, belongs to Jamar Roberts, who both choreographed Members Don’t Get Weary, a world premiere set to recordings by John Coltrane, and plays a featured role in Talley Beatty’s Stack-Up, a 1982 work seen here in a new production. At six-foot-four, Roberts is hard to miss; in Stack-Up, wearing a red jacket and a pair of silver pants that responds to Chenault Spence’s lighting in startling ways, he dominates the stage like the “connection” he is, passing dope to Yannick Lebrun and otherwise driving the sketchy plot. Stack-Up, a panoramic look at urban street life in late-20th-century Los Angeles — with a backdrop adapted from a painting by Romare Bearden — sizzles with disco energy, mixing critique and affection for its seventeen characters.
But it’s as a choreographer that Roberts dominates the program; Members Don’t Get Weary is a strong, stereoscopic look at life in a black community, with an epigraph by Ralph Ellison and a title derived from a 1968 jazz album by drummer Max Roach. A comma in the album’s title, Members, Don’t Git Weary, clarifies the meaning of the phrase and the dance, as does Ellison’s definition of the blues: the “impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain.”
Roberts also designed the costumes for this piece, mostly blue outfits that allude to uniforms: jumpsuits, prison garb, hospital scrubs. At the start, ten barefoot dancers wear huge straw hats, implying that they’re field hands under a hot sun; the movement mingles gestures of work with gestures of worship. Sometimes it evolves toward the total physical surrender of religious possession.
Members is divided into two sections, separated by a quick blackout and a shift in the Coltrane music from his “Dear Lord” to “Olé”; the second piece, complex and polyrhythmic, is full of trilling flute notes and strong percussion. Brandon Sterling Baker designs diagonal shafts of light that permit artists to appear and disappear from the back of the stage, occasionally punctuated by a bright spot; is that a sheriff’s searchlight or the eye of God? Toward the end a woman peels the shirt off a man, a moment of liberation powerful and delicate at once. The dark drop that limits the space above the dancers’ heads lifts, allowing them to bathe in the music and the light. Roberts has made a serious contribution to the Ailey rep, one that should endure.
Of Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s new Victoria, perhaps the less said the better. The Ailey company is full of brilliant, lyrical performers, and this piece, set to Michael Gordon’s raucous, screechy, assaultive “Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony,” traps eleven of them in a grove of abstract white trees, where they writhe uncomfortably, making jagged shapes and proceeding across the stage like defeated soldiers. Al Crawford’s lighting divides the stage into horizontal pathways from front to back, with different variations unfolding in each strip; some of these paths are dark, depriving us of a clear view of the action.
You can take in the wonders of this troupe through New Year’s Eve for about the price of a couple of fancy cocktails; the remaining bills include nine more performances of Ailey’s masterful signature piece Revelations, as well as dances by artistic director Robert Battle, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Kyle Abraham, Rennie Harris, Christopher Wheeldon, and Twyla Tharp. These works are a tonic in troubled times.