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Flash Review 1, 6-25: Sans Coeur
The Hollow House of Alvin Ailey

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- I hate to sound about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater circa 2003 like Jack Anderson sounded about Elizabeth Streb when he wrote in June 2002 in the New York Times: "Although many members of the audience cheered her feats and stunts, I sat scowling in my seat most of the time, just as I have done since I first saw Ms. Streb in the 1970s." A reader might ask me, as I figuratively asked Jack, "Who's twisting your arm?" In my case, I'm asked about this company enough that I thought I owed it to the dancers to see if it's improved since my last viewing in December 2000. (See my Flash Review, "Fix Ailey, Jesus, Fix it.") Never mind the ominous sign that last night's opening of the company's Paris season took place in an indoor stadium called the Palais des Sports; the program of Billy Wilson, Elisa Monte, Ronald K. Brown, and Ailey seemed inclined towards the type of soulful dancing that, with a few exceptions, has been absent at the company the last five years. Unfortunately, seeing such profound choreographies rendered so shallowly -- except by the ageless Renee Robinson, Glenn A. Sims, and Clifton Brown -- made the experience all the more frustrating.

My companion, seeing the company for the first time, suggested that maybe I'm just missing the dancers I first saw interpret some of these roles, notably in Ailey's "Revelations" and Elisa Monte's "Treading," receiving a new production this season. For a moment this caught me up; am I becoming like the New York City Balletomane of a certain vintage who responds to Kowroski-gushing with, "Ah, but you should have seen Allegra!"? I don't think so; I would be able to accept Dudley Williams's departure from "I Wanna be Ready" if the poignant meaning of this solo from "Revelations" hadn't departed with him. But Jeffrey Gerodias, who with Guillermo Asca seems to have inherited this role, either loses gestures almost entirely -- the fluttering of the hand over the floor as over a river or the vanishing Earth under him -- or gives them with no bodily sense of their intent, no weight, no evident strain or pain when he extends his legs and torso with his butt on the ground. As interpreted by Williams, this moment might have meant he wasn't ready to enter Heaven, it might have meant he wasn't quite ready to leave Earth -- but from Gerodias it means nothing. When Dwana Adiaha Smallwood is carried off shaking at the end of "Wade in the Water," she's not a woman possessed, she's just Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, showing off her spastic self as usual. And don't get me started on Smallwood's partner for this section of 'Rev,' Matthew Rushing; the eloquent torso of Don Bellamy has been replaced by the limited expression of Rushing's.

(Okay, you got me started.) We already know that Rushing seems to go over scores highlighting the moments where he gets to spin or jump, no matter the dance. It's bad enough that this can demean a work that is meant to be about more than spinning and jumping. But it's when Rushing tries to act that he can truly wreak havoc with a choreographer's intentions. Ronald K. Brown's work can be full of looks between the performers. On his own company, this reads simply as being present, as seeing and being aware of your partners. But, as, er, evidenced last night in the 2001 "Serving Nia," Rushing (and he is not alone here) seems to feel the need to dramatize this eye contact -- scowling disgustedly, for instance, when he exits. For the rest of the cast, with the exception of the genuine Robinson, they appear to see Brown's vocabulary, particularly that which draws from African movement, as yet another opportunity to show off, utterly missing the spirituality and soul which makes African dance moving and which distinguishes Brown's approach. (It doesn't help that the music is taped -- couldn't producer Paul Szilard have fronted fora couple of drummers? If live drummers are essential in class, why shouldn't they be to performance?)

Rushing's female counter-part as a lean mean dancing machine, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell (formerly Evans), sometimes finds a role so hot it almost succeeds in melting her icy delivery -- the shaman-like figure in the reprise of artistic director Judith Jamison's "Divining," for intance. Elisa Monte's signature 1981 duet "Treading," like much of what followed from Monte, is meant to be more sensual than overtly romantic, to be sure. But if it doesn't exactly demand the players emote, Monte's labyrinthine, Pilobolan (she's an alum) entanglements, set to Steve Reich, can come across as antiseptic athleticism if the performers aren't open to being moved by them. "Treading" might more aptly be called "Trembling," portraying two beings, solely and together, on the precipice -- of a cliff, of a lake, of love, of life, of sensual initiation, of birth. Fisher-Harrell came close last night, awfully close -- no doubt partly a result of precise coaching by Elizabeth Roxas, who made this a signature role during a dozen years with the company, and who remembers. It also helped that Fisher-Harrell's partner, Clifton Brown, who began the dance and who knows patience, lets himself be a vessel, and is warmed by the heat supplied by Monte's movement. Brown would show up -- and represent -- again in the "Sinner Man" section of "Revelations," revealing something I'd not seen before, that the green rectangle of light which circumscribes the movement of the three 'sinners' with nowhere to run terminates in a precipice, as Brown communicated by breaking perilously on one foot and barely not toppling over the edge.

But before that, we had Taylor's "Winter in Lisbon," which suffered the most by being given by a company for the most part without a soul. During the intermission that followed, my European companion, no stranger to dance but new to the Ailey company, gingerly asked, "Isn't the choreography somewhat common?" Well, it can seem so. Set mostly to the music of Dizzy Gillespie, this is the type of soulful "jazz" work (not to be confused, I explained to my friend, with "jazz dance") the Ailey company used to excel in. The choreographer, riffing on the music, creates a piece meant to evoke a milieu that's both musical and social. It depends for its success, for its resonance, not on spectacular choreography but on spirited, invested dancing. Whereas "Treading," even rendered coldly, can at least still be kinetically interesting, the choreography of 'Lisbon' can't go it alone without a warm reading.

As an example of how it's MEANT to work, I pointed my friend to the one segment of 'Lisbon' that was invested with heart and soul last night, the duet of the same name featuring Robinson and Sims. This seems a standard romantic pas de deux until Sims smothers Robinson with kisses and Robinson stops him, retracting her head and taking a moment to regard him -- in a word, connecting with him. As she's thus demonstrated her sincerity by giving truly a quiet moment, we believe her -- and don't take as just melodrama -- when, after blowing him a kiss across the room, she turns her head tragically as he savors the kiss between his hands. When the lights dim a moment later and the air goes out of him as he realizes she's gone, as ephemeral as the kiss he's just released into the Universe, the emotional payoff is real.

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