Monday, April 19, 2010

Dance class

Revelations is still riveting, but . . .

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came to town last weekend for its annual Celebrity Series visit, and, as always, closed its program with its signature piece (and Ailey's 1960 breakthrough), Revelations (above).

What was strange about the performance, however, was that Revelations - some fifty years old - was the most exciting dance of the evening. Which only underlined a troubling sense of stasis, and self-absorption in its own tradition, that's becoming apparent in the troupe. Make that an air-brushed tradition, btw; I've already posted about how the company elides or disguises its founder's sexuality (I note that this year, perhaps as a result of my writing, the company's gay dancers were put forward for interviews with local gay sites, although the effort came off as apologetic niche marketing rather than open acceptance of the truth about Ailey).

Of course it's always wonderful to see these dancers, who remain stunning in their virtuosity - but in a way their very ability only made the weak choreography last Thursday more frustrating; we wanted to see all this talent put to genuine artistic use. Instead, what we got were well-intentioned, but artistically flat, history lessons. The concert opened with "Uptown," a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance by talented company dancer Matthew Rushing, which meandered through tributes to Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and other well-known figures of that famous period of ferment. I'd welcome a genuine dance about the struggles of any of these figures, of course - but Rushing leaned heavily on the spoken word, and lecture-like projected images, rather than the dance-drama of Revelations; indeed, sometimes it seemed like there was more text than music. And while each sequence was, yes, uplifting in a warmly generic way, in dance terms they were all a bit dull (the one exception was a hot jitterbug with a series of dazzling lifts and jumps).

Next came another tribute, to Judith Jamison, the company's current artistic director, titled "Dancing Spirit" (the title of her autobiography), choreographed by Ronald K. Brown. The piece offered what seemed like a loose evocation of the tutelage of a Jamison figure (the glorious Renee Robinson) by an Ailey figure (Matthew Rushing again) - a conceit which might have been quite intriguing if it had had any specificity. But as the whole thing was clearly intended as tribute, not exploration, Brown settled for more uplifting symbology rather than actual character, and he structured the piece pretty simplistically. Still, Brown has a talent for rhythmic jazz-African fusion, and the graceful footwork and sinuous beats, if not the actual design, of the piece were often dazzling. It also closed with a lovely lighting effect (a full moon wreathed with stars).

Finally came Revelations, in a version which struck me as more powerful and committed than has appeared in many a year - perhaps because the dancers finally had a chance to ditch the history lessons and cut loose with some really rich choreography. Of course the Alvin Ailey troupe does have a rich history, and this country's own history of racism and oppression should never be forgotten. Still, it's possible to become addicted to looking backward rather than forward, and it seems every year is an anniversary year for this troupe - 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of Judith Jamison's directorship, as well as the 50th birthday of Revelations. And commemorating history isn't quite the same thing as making it come alive (much less making it). That's the great feat that Revelations pulls off - and why it always feels like a revelation. But has the troupe lost touch with what Ailey revealed in that great dance and others? Sometimes, on Thursday night, it felt that way.