I confess I'd just about given up on Alvin Ailey. Its dancers remained unrivaled in their sheer physical supremacy - and reveling in that was always a thrill; but over the two decades of Judith Jamison's reign as Artistic Director, the company seemed lost in a time warp, reliably offering Revelations, its inspirational calling card, along with servings of either sexy swagger or preachy uplift, but keeping things always conceptually light in the loafers, while locking Ailey himself (a great gay artist who died of AIDS) in the choreographic closet.
The implicit homophobia of this arrangement was alternately creepy and galling, particularly in an organization supposedly devoted to civil rights. But with the arrival of new Artistic Director Robert Battle in 2011, things began to change - so there are several shocks in store for the old fan base in Ailey's current visit to Celebrity Series. Indeed, last Saturday it seemed the company was almost racing to make up for lost time, while simultaneously scrambling to stretch its choreographic horizon.
Thus Revelations was nowhere to be found on the program, to make room for dances from the leading edge of the current scene (Chroma by Wayne McGregor and Lift from Aszure Barton). More striking still was the third offering: Bill T. Jones' D-Man in the Waters, Part I (at top), a meditation on the AIDS crisis that, while still somewhat oblique, proved nevertheless piercingly poignant. It's dedicated to a dancer who succumbed to HIV, but surprisingly, the work is suffused with profound joy - despite having been choreographed in 1989, near the darkest hour of the crisis (and perhaps not coincidentally the year of Mr. Ailey's own passing). But oh, how times have changed: we noted with a little leap of joy ourselves that among the performers last Saturday were company members Antonio and Kervin Douthit-Boyd, longtime companions who tied the knot as husband and husband last November.
Somehow this made the dashing grace of D-Man all the sweeter - but then "Part 1" is the most shimmering part of the dance. Still, one guesses that "D-Man" must stand for "Dead Man," even if most of the time Jones' heroes are literally swimming through new experiences (see excerpt above), or eagerly lining up to volunteer for something or other (helpful camaraderie is clearly the order of the day). We may also notice that everybody's dressed in army fatigues, although they have no idea who - or what - they're going to be fighting (while we know only too well).
So the piece is quite haunting, particularly to someone who lived through that ghastly age - and particularly as Jones so exquisitely channels the innocent exuberance of youth (drawn directly from Mendelssohn's glorious Octet in E, which was penned by the composer at the ripe old age of 16). It must be said, however, that Jones also channels fellow choreographer Mark Morris - indeed, sometimes so closely that I really thought Morris should be getting the royalty checks for this! On the other hand, Morris' influence seems to have freed Jones from a few of his didactic habits, and for that I was grateful. And needless to say, the Ailey Company has always exuded youthful ebullience in spades, so they dove right in and danced the hell out of these happy gambols - with Kanji Segawa a particular stand-out.
The same boundless energy buoyed Aszure Barton's hypnotic Lift (above), which like most of Barton's work was a little blank in terms of theme, but still throbbed with rhythmic invention. Ok, it's obvious that Barton's never going to be a deep thinker (I've said as much myself), but her lightning-quick facility was much in evidence here, and she certainly knows from sexy; and do I have to point out that the Alvin Ailey dancers are the sexiest performers on the planet? At any rate, Barton's various gambits achieved something like resonance whenever she referenced the company's earlier work (snippets of Revelations, for instance, kept surfacing among the company's tribal jumps and shaman-esque swivels). Here the commanding Jamar Roberts and Linda Celeste Sims made the biggest impression, in a rivetingly sensual duet (see masthead); but elsewhere there wasn't too much individuation (although the men did better than the women, as often happens at Ailey).
Oddly, the third dance on the program, Wayne McGregor's icy Chroma, was probably the evening's most challenging - but also its one misfire; the Ailey dancers, though physically as virtuosic as ever, just didn't seem able to engage with the piece's angrily angular spirit. And the reason struck me as an amusingly awk-ward one: McGregor has said that his dance's title connotes "freedom from white" - but umm, sorry, Wayne, you've choreographed just about the whitest dance evah; even the desire to be free from being white is in itself hilariously white.
Thus an oddly quizzical air pervaded this chunk of alienated Caucasiana; the dancers dazzled in their weirdly slashing, wobbly roles, but the whole thing still felt like one of those SNL skits starring Louis CK - you know, the ones that chuckle over "white people problems." Which doesn't mean there's no common ground to be found between Alvin Ailey and Wayne McGregor - in fact a little Alvin Ailey may be just what Wayne McGregor needs at this point. What's wonderful is that thanks to Robert Battle, that conversation can at last begin. Finally some of the greatest dancers in the world are being set loose on the cutting edge of our choreography.