The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater battles to move beyond being fabulous
DANCE The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater may be an American treasure, but it's one that has been adopted by the world. Wherever these dancers go, they jam the houses with enthusiastic audiences. That's why it may seem curmudgeonly to say that while fabulous, they could be better. Not the dancers: technically, they are top-notch, as well as brave, fierce, and committed. What the company needs — and will now get — is a new vision.
It was both hopeful and disconcerting to see the company's last Zellerbach engagement (March 30) under the leadership of Judith Jamison, Ailey's first muse. She took over the company upon Ailey's death, in 1989, when it was demoralized and deeply in debt. Today, Ailey's repertoire is in good hands, and Jamison has built an enviable infrastructure. But the dancers are such technical powerhouses that audiences the world over gladly indulge work with surface glitz as long as they get Revelations at the end.
The first of this year's programs showed what is right and wrong with the company. The best pieces by far were by Ailey: Cry (1971) and Revelations (1960). Both received excellent performances. They also showed that the Ailey dancers can be nuanced and expressive, when given half a chance.
Cry is dedicated to "all black women everywhere — especially our mothers," and was created for Jamison. Here its three sections were entrusted to the majestic Rachel McLarec, a fiercely despairing Constance Stamatiou, and Briana Reed as the victorious survivor. The approach worked, though when performed by one woman, Cry feels more complex.
In Revelations, Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims pushed themselves physically and emotionally to the edge during "Fix Me, Jesus," while Amos J. Machanic Jr. almost turned himself inside out in "I Wanna be Ready." For "Rocka My Soul," the dancers held back. A wise move: the audience wouldn't let them go without an encore.
The first of two Bay Area premieres, Christopher L. Huggins' three-part Anointed was intended as a tribute to the growth of the company under Jamison. Unfortunately, it played to the worst of the audience's expectations. It was visually full of sound and fury, but conceptually and choreographically dim. A dark-clad figure (Jamar Roberts) calls upon a fierce, fist-clutching fighter (the incredibly fit Sims) to follow him. In voice-over, a reluctant Jamison accepts the call. Next, "Sally Forth," the work's best choreography, features Sims in a female quintet with a modicum of rhythmic invention as five dancers fly apart and coalesce into solidarity. A parallel men's quintet, with a "transfigured" Roberts now in white, presented the men in unison turns that spun off into the wings. Not much there. Only the dedication of the dancers kept Anointed from burning itself to ashes.
In the second Bay Area premiere, Robert Battle's The Hunt, Brown, Sims, Roberts, Antonio Douthit, Kirven James Boyd, and Yannick Lebrun used every ounce of reserve strength. Battle created a convincing evocation of masculinity that turned a cliché — man as hunter — into a complex ritual expression of solidarity, submission, and friendship. Good times were mixed with aggression and victimhood. The ideas flowed in and out of each other in rhythmically intricate stomping, skipping, and running patterns of considerable nuance. All were immaculately performed to music by the outstanding percussion ensemble Les Tambours du Bronx. It's reassuring to hear that Battle will be taking over the company.