"The River," "The Road of the Phoebe Snow," "Love Stories";
"Firebird," "The Groove to Nobody's Business," "Pas de Duke," "The Golden Section"
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
New York, NY
December 4 & 8 (matinee), 2007
by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter
Revivals, more than premieres, are proving to be the more noteworthy aspect of the current Ailey season. Several works that strongly evoke the particular moment in which they were created are providing these dancers with meaty interpretive challenges, while the two novelties tailor-made for these versatile and indefatigable performers have turned out to be once-over-lightly efforts that are amiable, mildly flavorful character studies weak on craft and focus -- and offering little evidence of any galvanizing purpose.
An object lesson in what they lack is provided by the company's new production of Talley Beatty's "The Road of the Phoebe Snow." From its very first moments, this 1959 work -- a mainstay of the repertory for Ailey dancers of the 1960s and '70s, but not performed by the company for three decades -- seizes one's attention with its galvanizing dynamism. Tough, taut and wary, these young men and women express the on-edge alertness and barely submerged anger of people whose existence is anything but easy. A woman's body lies mid-stage, and others leap over her, whether with vengeful fury or desperation, one can't yet be sure.
The costumes, and some of the attitude, suggest a kinship with Jerome Robbins' "New York Export, Op. Jazz," created a year earlier. Both reverberate with the pent-up frustration of young people yearning to break out of a restricted existence, but those who populate Beatty's work seem past the gawky yearning of adolescence, a bit more aware of what's out there in the real world and filled with anger at its imbalances. The rich, highly urban strains of various 1950s selections by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn provide the urgent, richly textured musical underpinning for this vivid, unsparing portrayal of taut ensemble energy that veers into hostility and destructiveness.
Early on, the men, in hooded sweatshirts, and women, in sleek long-sleeve midriff tops over their calf-length soft skirts, dance both separately and as couples. The men, their legs slicing through space and their entire bodies radiating vibrant alertness, charge through space with particular boldness. To punctuate the end of one section, the women fly into the men's arms, arriving with their legs wide apart. Duos and trios start to emerge, top layers are removed so that all are in tank tops (in a wonderfully juicy array of colors), and individuals catch the eye -- Matthew Rushing's silky, understated lusciousness is given full play, as is the whiplash power of Gwynenn Taylor Jones' long, expressive torso.
As the group sits and reclines (in a somewhat Robbins-like mode), suggesting a watchfulness that allows for no complete privacy -- or individual expression -- two couples emerge. Briana Reed - all sinew and endless legs in her fire-engine red leotard (her skirt's been tossed aside) -- and tough, muscular Glenn Allen Sims test and taunt each other. It's all about heat -- callow sentimentality is clearly not their thing. But then sweet, earnest Linda Celeste Sims and Clifton Brown dare to explore tenderness and trust, and even before they finish one man among the observers is stalking upstage in the shadows, seething with menace.
The couple's purity and sincerity clearly venture too far from the unspoken code of alienated, seen-it-all cynicism that tough living has imprinted on these people, and they soon pay the price. Both are attacked, and Sims is seized, brutalized and left for dead on the ground, bringing us full circle to the opening scenario.
The invaluable Masazumi Chaya - the former company member turned associate artistic director, who is celebrating 35 years with Ailey this season -- danced in "Phoebe Snow" its last time around in the active repertory, and has staged it with searing energy and inspired truly committed, serious performances from the cast of 14. They don't "sell" it or act it, but get deep inside the intricacies and rhythmic bite of Beatty's taut movement, which incorporates virtuosity (Brown's sinuously unspooling pirouettes; sudden deep hinges; plenty of deftly timed partnering) but always with a forceful sense of purpose shining through.
This revival's first performance followed Alvin Ailey's 1970 "The River," the wonderfully rich suite to an original Ellington score which is settling comfortably into the company's repertory. This performance was graced by two former Dance Theater of Harlem members who are particularly attuned to the classical technique Ailey incorporated into his Horton-derived, torso-propelled vocabulary when he created this work for American Ballet Theatre. Antonio Douthit brought his lithe fluidity to the questing seeker of the opening "Spring" section, and streaked merrily through "Giggling Rapids," which employs, as well as gently mocks, allegro ballet technique. Rosalyn Deshauteurs was his crisp, engaging partner in the duet. Douthit hardly had a moment to rest, as he was also one of the high-flying, sharply spinning male quartet, "Falls." This almost comes across as a lesser "Sinner Man," but is given its own aura of danger and daring thanks to Ellington's fierce percussion and unpredictable rhythms.
Alicia J. Graf made her local debut in the sleekly commanding central ballerina role in "Lake," the ballet's central and most extended section. Newly comfortable this season as she delves deeper into the repertory and performs more prominently, Graf was drop-dead gorgeous in her blend of sinuous fluidity and elegant line. Rarely has the extended solo, in which she carves through space, unfurling her long line with increasing abandon, been more expressive, and when Jamar Roberts appeared to partner her, his confident, commanding presence allowed her to give herself over fully to the arching, yieldingly sensuous choreography. The duo were similarly powerful in the poignant "Twin Cities" section.
Douthit took on the title role of Maurice Bejart's "Firebird," and while he was not flawless in some of the very exposed technical challenges, he brought a vibrant imagination and just the right touch of exotic wildness to the role, which is so laden with import and would-be symbolic significance. He gave the ballet a beating heart, which is not easy, since so much of it blunts the shimmering majesty of Stravinsky's music, straining ponderously to communicate Important Ideas - whatever they are.
Graf is a wonderfully honest performer, and the sheer joy and freedom with which she danced in "Pas de Duke" made it clear that this is the season when she is really becoming an Ailey dancer. Sharing the stage with a particularly snappy, invigorated Clifton Brown in yet another of Ailey's inspired Ellington works, she sailed through the technical challenges and looked impossibly sensual in her sleek black top and pants. The original dynamic of the work -- tall, earth-mother modern dancer (Judith Jamison) paired with a feisty paragon of classical bravura (Mikhail Baryshnikov) -- was left far behind, but these two truly made the work their own. It was irresistible, from start to finish.
Amid all these works dating from much earlier decades, the latest addition to the Ailey repertory, Camille A. Brown's "The Groove to Nobody's Business," does not promise to be of enduring value. It's a moderately engaging momentary trifle, enhanced by the cast's vivid personalities. Brown sets a group of urban types --- uptight businessman, oblivious young lovers, non-nonense, give-me-my-space woman, a nervously impatient young go-getter -- on a subway platform, where their growing exasperation with the long wait for a train adds to their impatience with each other. They jostle for position on a bench, lean out with that familiar New York body language, as though to will the train to arrive, and eye each other with mild annoyance.
Eventually they end up on the train, and Brown does find some inventive ways to turn some typical urban behavior into dance. J. Wiese's backdrops, in shades of grey, are evocative of the locale without being literal. But the middle section, to Ray Charles' "What'd I Say?" is over-extended, driven more by the length of the recording than by an inner logic. Brown has an eye for moments that register sharply, and a finger on the pulse of today's energy and attitudes, but the material is ultimately thin, and "Groove," though relatively short, suffers from diminishing returns.
Top: "The Road of the Phoebe Snow," photo by Paul Kolnik
Botton: Antonio Douthit (with Alicia J. Graf and Ebony Haswell) in "Firebird," photo by Eduardo Patino