A lone figure stood in the spotlight at the start of what I’ve come to think of as Washington’s most sparkling gala event. In the Opera House space which could have easily swallowed her up and with rustling of bejeweled gowns as latecomers hastily made their way to their seats, Nyla Pettis stood tall, looking both exquisitely fragile and, at the same time, elegant, strong, and singularly focused.
Nyla is a dancer from Washington D.C., who was taken to an Alvin Ailey performance as a child and it changed her life. Her dedication and talent earned her way into a scholarship generous enough that she could attend multiple Ailey Summer Intensive trainings in NYC and now is part of the company’s professional division while going for a higher education degree at Fordham University in their partnership with the dance company. Her story, and others like hers, is what the evening and the legacy of the remarkable choreographer, teacher, and citizen artist Alvin Ailey is all about.
Ailey was a visionary who saw that dance and indeed the full spectrum of arts in education should be open to everyone. He also championed dance as an experience that could be socially as well as aesthetically transformative.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has returned to Washington with performances through February 10. Their presence in Washington feels like manna, uplifting and restorative, in a city now riddled with both physical and metaphorical potholes and a kind of “pox” of human making.
The opening night program contained two sustained works, both taking us on a journey and in a way giving us the same story but from two sides of a coin.
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater
closes February 10, 2019
Details and tickets
The first, Lazarus, is the company’s first two-act ballet, commissioned in partnership with the Kennedy Center. The acclaimed Hip Hop choreographer Rennie Harris has created a work that features fifteen members of the company, and it comes to us in its Washington premiere.
Presented in its entirety, the work was inspired by the life journey of the undefeatable Alvin Ailey himself. But in so doing, it seems Harris has also enlarged the canvas to include the larger subject of African-American history, and in this she holds no punches as she wades into the current conversation, reminding us of the ongoing fear, setbacks, and violence to which this community has been subjected.
The work is part of a trilogy by Harris and of a larger year-long project in collaboration with the Kennedy Center and National Geographic, investigating themes of migration, identity, and resilience through (in this case) the lens of dance.
You would need to know none of this to appreciate the dramatic arc of the performance and be moved, sometimes to tears, by the emotional power of Harris’ work. The bodies move almost continuously in stark, compelling ways.
A man stands and falls, struggles up to stand again, and is pushed down. At one point, another man mimes cutting a rope from around the man’s neck and lays him down. A line of figures push their way across the stage, their bodies so steeply raked as if staggering against prevailing winds. Many of these also fall, and others lift back up the fallen brother or sister. Slogging through. Keepin’ on keepin’ on. Sometimes, they huddle in fear. A hand shoots up high in the air, here and there; sometimes the hands are trembling. Are they faltering or testifying or is it both at times?
At one point bodies lie fallen as if resting in earth. But then arms begin to wave and undulate, as if sea anemones or a field of grain. A group of women come to harvest—one can imagine taking into themselves nourishment from those who went before.
Harris uses the vocabulary of Hip Hop but carefully chooses steps and gestures in repeated patterns to forward the dramatic line. It was deeply satisfying to see her borrow certain Ailey combinations in her choreography. Nothing is wasted and nothing for show. All is so human.
The score by Darrin Ross intensifies the dark truths that drive this important work. Somber string bowing overlaid with high-note plinks on the piano establish the piece. But then Ross begins to layer, especially spoken text. Sometimes, the text comes at us distinctly as when, shortly after the central figure is laid down, words float out, “suffering from survivors guilt.” At other times, spoken word is also layered and we are supposed to understand the same story is happening everywhere and to multitudes.
Other sounds are incorporated in the design. I especially liked the deep male voices chanting throughout. These voices brought us back in time to the songs of field slaves and other laborers toiling. Also integrated were soundtracks of challenged breathing, heartbeats, weeping, and dogs barking (cueing us to remember America’s racism and the historical significance of the use of dogs as instruments of terror and subjection.)
The experience of the work is meant to be expressionistic. Catch it on the fly.
There were two twenty-minute intermission, and then came Revelations, returning as a dear beloved friend. This work has stood out as the most loved in Ailey’s repertoire.
If Lazarus is drama at it most tragic, then Revelations is ultimately about joy and a celebration of the human spirit. If Harris and designers James Clotfelter (Lighting) and Mark Eric (Costumes) worked to confront the darkness in our society in Lazarus, then in Revelations, Ailey and collaborators Ves Harper and Barbara Forbes, with lighting by Nicola Cernovitch, worked to give us the warmth of bright sunshine and spiritual light of the human spirit.
There’s so much to love in this piece, and I’ve seen it at least ten times over the years. This evening I was caught up in the inventiveness of props that Ailey used so delightfully. The fans in the gossipy gathering of women took on such life they became gossiping characters themselves. The white banners that flutter. When the fabulous puffy white cloud of a parasol appeared on stage, floating over the head of the dancers like a giant jellyfish, I could almost feel Judith Jamieson, who, as I remember, originated the role of Parasol Woman dance on underneath it.
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The dancers make a beautiful ensemble and bring strength, grace and intelligence to the company in equal measure. The physical output of energy was prodigious in the high-paced pops, kicks, and hops plus the legato-with-effort staggering patterns in Lazarus but also the grand pliés, the African inspired snapping of spines, the full-body undulations and held leg extensions in Revelations.
Several company dancers are from Washington D.C., including Ghrai DeVore who joined the company in 2010, and Samantha Figgins who joined in 2014. Daniel Harder and Jacqueline Green are both from Maryland.
Something else also happened Tuesday night, as electrifying as when in classical Greek theater the first actor stepped out in front of the dancing-and-chanting chorus whenever Yannick Lebrun moved downstage and emerged from the ensemble. Lebrun has seemingly divine energy that pulses through his body. His stride moves across the stage as if eating up space. A whipping of his spine, an undulation of his arm, and every turn are all fully committed to, and every move snaps into place through his use of sharp focus shifts.
Likewise, the duet with Jacqueline Green and Jamar Roberts drew gasps from the audience for their combined control of high extensions and artistry.
Washington is extremely lucky to have Alvin Ailey’s company forging ever-stronger links and partnerships with our city and its young artists. His voice and example can reach more people and win hearts and minds to the arts and our need to come together more than any program I know. Isiah Williams, former Quarterback for the Chicago Bears, who had never been to an Ailey dance concert, inTuesday’s audience and now a fan, can attest to that.
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Choreography by Rennie Harris and Alvin Ailey. Sets and Costume Designs by Barbara Forbes, and Ves Harper. Lighting Design by James Clotfelter and Nicola Cernovitch. Music and Sound Design by Darrin Ross. With Glenn Allen Sims, Clifton Brown, Daniel Harder, Jamar Roberts, Samantha Figgins, Sarah Daley-Perdomo, Jacqueline Green, Jacquelin Harris, Vernard J. Gilmore, Yannick Lebrun, Michael Francis McBride, Belén Pereyra-Alem, Michael Jackson Jr., Ghrai DeVore, Akua Noni Parker, Meghan Jakel, Kanji Sagawa, Riccardo Battaglia, and Christopher Wilson. Presented by the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.