Alvin Ailey classics still work wonders at NY City Center

Antonio Douthit and Jamar Roberts in 'Strange Humors,' choreographed by Robert Battle — Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
Antonio Douthit and Jamar Roberts in ‘Strange Humors,’ choreographed by Robert Battle — Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

NEW YORK — Does anything or anyone come close to the continued modern-dance excellence of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater? Likely not in this generation.

The thrilling company, currently under the artistic direction of Robert Battle, is able to simultaneously honor the storied history of Ailey and expand his influence with newly choreographed works that dissect cultural traditions. In its month-long residency at New York City Center, the Ailey dancers are flying through classic routines that hit the audience like a well-known rock song on the radio, plus adding in newer, edgier fare that clearly shows the direction of Battle’s troops toward novelty and risk-taking.

At a recent New Year’s Day performance, the schedule of events included a fun combination of classic and fairly new pieces.

“Another Night,” choreographed by Kyle Abraham and set to the music of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” is a jazzy company number that feels buoyantly energetic. The short piece starts with a solo female dancer in a striking purple dress. She is soon joined by other company members, each one bringing a uniqueness to the crazed performance. Abraham smartly lets the piece evolve like any good jazz composition — together and yet distinct, ordered and yet all over the place.

“Another Night” encapsulates the Ailey dichotomy. Somehow the dancers are able to split their bodies apart horizontally, letting their upper torso dip and sway while their legs bend and shake. There may be 10 dancers on the stage, but sometimes it feels like 20 lives are working together, doubling the possibilities. There’s so much freedom in the imprecise synchronicity — that rare ability to fit in and stand out.

"Grace," choreographed by Ronald K. Brown — Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
“Grace,” choreographed by Ronald K. Brown — Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

“Strange Humors,” a 1998 Battle piece that premiered at Ailey in 2012, has Kirven Douthit-Boyd and Samuel Lee Roberts trading off moves along the length of a diagonal light that cuts City Center’s stage in half. Set to the evocative, pulsating music of John Mackey, the two dancers rely on the repetition of each other’s moves and then wonderfully break apart into their own routines. The entire duet builds to a fever pitch, and the dancers, often jumping and cavorting, dare to step beyond the diagonal light.

The highlight of the two-hour program had to be Ronald K. Brown’s 1999 “Grace.” What a joy to see such a fully realized, mature piece that utilizes so many dancers in so many gloriously convoluted ways. The 30-minute dance captures energy as the dancers boom off the stage. Much like “Another Night,” it starts with a solo female dancer, this time Alicia Graf Mack. Wearing an original white dress, she begins the piece as if “Grace” were firmly planted in the spiritual realm. The slow, undulating movements eventually bleed over into a full company of dancers letting loose on a patchwork of lights shining across the entire stage. Is this a person’s journey from grace to sin and back again?

The movements throughout the piece work beautifully, and the dancing of Ailey veteran Hope Boykin is transcendent. She stands out as an exquisite interpreter of Brown’s choreography. A minor quibble: Although the emphasized pointing to the sky works in “Revelations,” during “Grace” it feels too much like a disco move, as if the BeeGees were being summoned.

The final work, and Ailey’s most popular routine, is “Revelations,” a choreographed masterpiece that lives up to its title. There’s not much more that can be written about “Revelations” that hasn’t already been noted by dance reviewers for 50 years. The piece, working through three distinct sections (“Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water” and “Move, Members, Move”), is a synthesis of so many important cultural images and experiences. The traditional music, including the catchy “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” has the company working through a series of body movements that are overzealously welcomed by the expectant audience. “Wade in the Water,” a section in the middle of the piece, can be a transportive experience, and Demetia Hopkins, Yannick Lebrun and Graf Mack bring beauty to life.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues at City Center through Jan. 5 before embarking on a winter tour throughout the United States. Catch the revelations.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

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John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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