"Polish Pieces," "Awassa Astrige/Ostrich," "The Pleasure of the Lesson," "Revelations"
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall
April, 22, 2015
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano, 2015
The enthusiastic response to every piece on the Ailey Company's second evening at Zellerbach surely can be taken as an affirmation of Artistic Director Robert Battle's widening of the repertoire. The audience one more time seemed happy with "Revelations" as the finale, but they didn't seem to have waited anxiously for it. To offer fiercely contemporary works such as Hans Van Manen's "Polish Pieces" and Robert Moses "The Pleasure of the Lesson" on the same evening, separated by a historical jewel, is excellent programming. Of course, it helped that the Ailey dancers gave such fine interpretations to the complex demands that these works put on their skills and their artistry.
Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims in "Polish Pieces." Photo © Andrew Eccle
Moses calls his San Francisco-based ensemble "Robert Moses' Kin." It's an old-fashioned term implying an identity within a family, a clan, perhaps a tribe. Which of course, the Ailey dancers have, more so than many other dance companies. In Moses' hands "Pleasure" became a luxurious and mercurial exploration about the way men and women relate to each other both as groups and as individuals. But it also pays tribute to the process of dance making with a vocabulary -- drawing on both concert and popular traditions -- that is so dense and used so fluidly that constructs evaporate almost before they register. With its roving spotlights lighting designer Al Crawford's red/orange glow often seems to smudge as much as to illuminate. So does Moses and David Worms' heavily textured score that ranges from heart beats to jungle sounds, poetry to drums. It defies comprehension so you just drown in it. Watching "Pleasure" became both a deeply involving and frustrating experience.
Yet for all its overload of information, "Pleasure" holds together because Moses embraces chaos as much as formality. Small mercurial ensembles and splendid duets, each totally different from the next -- the most spectacular being the last one for Jaqueline Green and Antonio Douthit-Boyd -- are balanced with ensemble dances as traditional and formal as anything: male/female lines; two-by-two overlapping unisons, serpentines and even a circle dance. Woven through this tapestry is an intriguing thread: in this tribe women have power. "Pleasure" is one of Moses' best but also most demanding works. The Ailey dancers shone in it; they gave it every ounce of their expressive potential.
To have "Pleasure" be preceded by another ensemble work, Van Manen's "Polish Pieces" was an inspired decision. It was everything that Moses' work was not: streamlined, slick, crystalline and spectacular. Closely set to the rhythmic intricacies of two Gorecki scores, the work starts out as a series of overlapping precision formations that open and coalesce like a photographer's lens. Keso Dekker's monochromatic but color-saturated unitards integrated the dancers into the patterning even as they highlighted their individuality. Though distant -- their gaze is to the floor -- there is nothing mechanical or even regimented about the way these dancers scoop their arms or point their fingers. At times, they look almost playful when they sink into those deep plies, raise an arm into a ballet port de bras or peek around a partner. With the shift in the music, Van Manen introduces several pas de deux. The choreography becomes more emotionally nuanced. Linda Celeste Sims anxiously weaves herself around the stoic Glenn Allen Sims who is hardly aware of her offering herself. In the final spectacular duet Douhit-Boyd becomes a kind of protector to the regal yet vulnerable Jacqueline Green.
In between these two works, the reconstructed "Awassa Astrige/Ostrich" served both as a reminder of Asadata Dafora's and a great dancer's contribution to American dance and of how easy categorizations fail us. As performed by Jamar Roberts, this work looked quite contemporary in its presentational quality. I was particularly struck by how different Roberts looked with his back to us and the rich plumage he carried, and the frontal view with these oddly colored feathers hanging from his belt. Walking into the wings, Roberts for a moment turned his proud head towards the audience, perhaps saying "this is for you."
This program was so rich that "Revelations" was almost anti-climactic, competent as the performance was. The opening 'I Been Buked' looked particularly fine in the way these individuals coalesced into a spiritual as well as human community. With its sense of opening up and closing in, 'Fix Me, Jesus', perhaps "Revelations" finest single piece of choreography, was as haunting as I have ever seen it. It was exquisitely performed by a racked-by-grief Akua Noni Parker and Michael Jackson, Jr.who shared her pain and supported her ever so tenderly.