Big News at the Kennedy Center. Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater rocked the place last night.. And no one rushed to exit the Opera House auditorium (as they often do at the KC) until the last bow was taken.
President John F. Kennedy would have been proud at this, part of his Centennial Celebration. Here in D.C., at least for this one night we came together and were uplifted through these beautiful dancers by his ideals of courage, freedom, justice, service, and gratitude.
It was a celebration indeed, the 18th annual gala event for Ailey’s company. I’ve never seen such gorgeously arrayed folk at a KC do. The Mayor was there. The President of Howard University Dr. Wayne Frederick and his wife were present. Southern Company, the sponsors of the event, was well represented. Everyone beaming, naturally; the turnout had garnered over $1,000,000, beating all previous records.
I met Nailan Morsell, a ninth grader, who was with over two-dozen other students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Throughout the evening these students were the first to burst into cheers following the dances for the superb and varied program.
Robert Battle, the charismatic A.D. of Ailey’s company, took the microphone and, after the obligatory “thank yous,” set the tone for the evening. His company was glad to be back in Washington after a year, and “What’s new?” The audience howled with laughter. But what wasn’t new, he reminded us, is the commitment of the company and its supporters to reach out to the Washington Community and to help youngsters take advantage of the programs and training the premier company offers.
First on the program was “The Winter in Lisbon.” With music by Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Fishman, who was in the audience, it begins with timpani and then a single bass line. The piece conjures up a sultry evening, the blue hour, calling people to love. Dancers walk past, meet and embrace each other, and then part. The dance grows steamier. Hips roll, backs undulate and arch backward. Women get lifted and held close.
Three men dance in bright two-toned shoes, slacks and caps. Their moves are taken from street “hanging out”, doing what men do. The music shifts and women join them with flirtatious flicks of their skirts and hip gyrations.
There is a beautiful duet between dancers Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims. The strong classical background of these two artists was in great evidence. Their ability to breathe in unison in their exquisitely controlled développées and partnered turns showed that the finest in the company has never been better.
The work builds to a climactic, wild Latin dance party. Nothing is held back, like they’re going to dance all night.
Choreographer Billy Wilson knew how to create character and theatrical stories in Broadway style. “The Winter in Lisbon” is filled with his signature borrowing from social dance styles.
After an intermission, the company took the audience on a more complex and stark journey in their premiere of a work by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger. The man has been receiving world attention with his iconoclastic breaking of rules of form and style. His juxtaposition of wry humor with profoundly deep themes of alienation and terror to explore through movement many sides of the human condition blew me away. His use of movement in silence, percussion of body parts on other parts, and human vocalizations felt endlessly inventive.
“Walking Mad” features a wall that stretches maybe six meters across the stage. A man in a coat and bowler walks past a woman. Is it a harmless pick up or is there something more sinister? She ignores him and nervously picks up her laundry and leaves. A hat gets passed, disappearing from behind one end of the wall then humorously, impossibly appearing a second later around the other side. Suddenly she, the pursuer, flies across the stage to grab him, tossing her clothes in the air. Later, in a flash change he’s dressed as she is in a gray gown.
Bodies climb up on the wall and hang there, feet dangling. People slide down. The woman is chased by many, all in the same coats and hats. Bodies ricochet back and smash against the wall. People get caught alone and can’t get over, under, or through. A couple uses the wall to explore a torturous trapped relationship.
Of course we can’t see a wall now without interpreting symbolically certain policy implications. But this wall is an existential state of mind. Chilling. Powerful. The movement vocabulary is stripped away, sometimes awkward, but always deeply truthful.
The final part of the evening brought us back to a more familiar and celebratory place.
Battle choreographed the short work “Ella” as a tribute to the great American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, featuring her own music with her signature “scat” vocalizations. Two women in matching black jumpsuits start a dance that seems a “scat” with the body, full of be-bop moves and quick changes. The fun piece starts and never stops. Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel threw themselves into it, scatting along with Ella, and it’s all joyous.
“Revelations,” Alvin Ailey’s most celebrated of all works, brought us to the sacred mountain of American dance. I have seen it many times and it never ceases to thrill and uplift. It is so well known by lovers of dance that even in the middle of sections, when the dancers would hit a collective pose, such as the deep wide kneebends with the heads bowed and the arms all outstretch like great protective wings, the audience broke into cheers.
Want to go?
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
closes February 12, 2017
Details and tickets
Those figures in white, hands rolling, rib cages undulating as if moving across a great white beach under a blue sky. The single parasol pushing up to the sky, carried high in pride. The group parts with heads darting here and there like chickens and the woven straw fans flapping. Palms open and outstretched in praise worship. The men, every one of them dashing and stepping up to his woman. (Is there anyone more gorgeous than an Alvin Ailey dancer?) The women taking turns swirling, shaking and testifying.
You gotta come, celebrate and give praise.
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Choreography by Billy Wilson, Johan Inger, Robert Battle, and Alvin Ailey. Sets and Costume Design by Barbara Forbes, Johan Inger, Rebecca Shouse, Jon Taylor, and Ves Harper. Lighting Design by Chenault Spence, Erik Berglund, Burke Wilmore, and Nicola Cernovitch. With Hope Boykin, Jeroboam Bozeman, Sean Aaron Carmon, Elisa Clark, Sarah Daley, Ghrai DeVore, Solomon Dumas, Samantha Figgins, Vernard J. Gilmore, Jacqueline Green, Daniel Harder, Jacquelin Harris, Colin Heyward, Michael Jackson, Jr., Megan Jakel, Yannick Lebrun, Renaldo Maurice, Ashley Mayeux, Michael Francis McBride, Rachael McLaren, Chalvar Monteiro, Akua Noni Parker, Danica Paulos, Belen Pereyra, Jamar Roberts, Samuel Lee Roberts, Kanji Segawa, Glenn Allen Sims, Linda Celeste Sims, Constance Stamatiou, Jermaine Terry, and Fana Tesfagiorgis. Presented by the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.