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Flash Review, 9-3: Move us, members, move us!
Ailey at 50: Searching for a whole lotta soul that's been lost

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2009 Marisa C. Hayes

PARIS -- The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was the featured and sole attraction of this summer's Étés de la Danse (Summers of Dance) festival at the Théâtre du Châtelet, the historic birthplace of the Ballets Russes and also host to the Maryinsky Ballet, Tchaikovsky and Jean Cocteau, to name a few. It would seem a fitting location to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary and honor Alvin Ailey's great contribution to contemporary dance, but the current company gives little reason to rejoice.

Despite its official cultural ambassador status (first conferred under President Kennedy's Asian tour program), there's not much remaining substance behind what's become a commercial dance industry that even includes its own Barbie doll (designed by Judith Jamison, and dressed from the "Wade in the Water" section of Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"). While it's easy to appreciate any dance company's need for this type of fundraising, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater appears to be coasting on a rock-star reputation. It would do well to drop some of the pyrotechnics and get back to basics, the foundations of solid performance. All the merchandise, hype and glamorous photo shoots can't mask dancers who give less than 100% in live performance, and they appeared to give far less than that when the company took to the stage on July 24.

The program opened with Maurice Béart's "Firebird," a 22-minute version danced to Stravinsky's 1909 orchestral suite (not to be confused with the composer's full-length "Firebird" created for Fokine's original Ballets Russes production). Having little to do with the Slavic tale of a magical bird, Béjart's production, created in 1970, uses Stravinsky's life and music as a starting point for non-narrative themes of revolution and regeneration. Sadly, the ballet's significance was muddled here by lackluster performances and technical issues. The eight-member, mixed-sex corps that Béjart named the "partisans" paced their way though the choreography as if they were anticipating the musical counts in an effort to bend their bodies at will while offering the emotional presence of cardboard boxes. Technically, the ensemble looked ill at ease with the choreography: footwork was sloppy, formations were unclear and the performance seemed to drag on without tempo or momentum. Bulky costumes added insult to injury. Béjart's original "Firebird" designers, Joelle Roustan and Roger Bernard, are credited in the program, but a review of footage of Béjart's Ballet Lausanne company shows earlier "Firebird" dancers in fitted, uni-colored suits that do greater justice to line and form. The Ailey company appeared to be swimming in a heavier fabric that resembled burlap and that, coupled with a loose fit, brought to mind potato sacks, hindering the cut and articulations of the dancers' well-toned bodies. Matthew Rushing as the Firebird, a guiding light for the partisans, and Jamar Roberts as the Phoenix were thankfully garbed in red spandex, and as a result, their movements were visible. These two leading dancers provided some relief in their prowess as strong jumpers. Both possess a fluidity that's pleasant to watch, but their feet are a distraction. Rushing's expressive arms and otherwise beautiful lines are tarnished by feet that crumple into hockey puck-like balls instead of a defined, pointed continuum. Then again, so did those of Jorge Donn (Béjart's greatest muse), which speaks to a larger, general problem in both ballet and contemporary men's technique.

The company looked far more at ease dancing "Suite Otis," choreographed by George Faison, an early Ailey company member best known for creating the dance segments in "The Wiz." An homage to soul master Otis Redding, "Suite Otis" is an ensemble work that explores the sensuality and youthful emotions expressed in the late, great Redding's music, including "Just One More Day," "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and "Try a Little Tenderness." It's not a powerful or even particularly memorable collection of dances, but the Ailey men shone with their flirtatious expressions and intricate hip isolations that recur throughout the piece. The women, though technically skilled, looked less playful. During the battle of the sexes for "Satisfaction," the women's acting skills unfolded like a bad school play. Among the overall lack of presence, Khilea Douglass stood out as an exception. Her spunky attitude and buoyant step reflected the necessary elements in creating visual imagery to match Redding's powerful sound. Like the first part of the program, "Suite Otis" couldn't escape production trouble, this time in the form of a washed-out lighting scheme that completely drained the costumes of their multi-shade rose colors, lending a flattening effect to the piece.

To close the evening, the Ailey company fared slightly better in its signature piece, "Revelations," yet even this beloved work seemed to lack intensity without the full performance commitment of the dancers. The performance was certainly polished technically, given with more finesse than it ever has been in any showing I've seen (beautiful, clean extensions), but something's missing, particularly in the final segment, "Move Members Move." The ensemble handled the somber mood of "Pilgrim of Sorrow" well, and Ailey's choreography continues to look fresh and inspiring 49 years on. "Take Me to the Water" lacked the ritualistic power that it once held with its visual interactions between cloth (water), large props and the dancers' movements because, as in "Firebird," the company appeared to be going through the paces, lacking the intensity necessary to accompany this baptismal rite. During the finale, "Rocka My Soul in the Bossom of Abraham," the normally zesty movements of female church-goers and their hand-held fans looked forced and slightly unenthusiastic (maybe the Ailey dancers feel about "Revelations" the way most ballet dancers feel about "Nutcracker").

Despite what regular Ailey-goers will recognize as a downturn for the company, Parisian response was tremendous. All 24 performances of the three programs and gala were sold out. The Alvin American Dance Theater hadn't been to France since 2006, and at that time, the scheduled three-week run had to be extended to accommodate ticket demand. Resounding adoration for the company was apparent as soon as the curtain opened for "Firebird," with hoots and enthusiastic applause accompanying the dancers' first few seconds on stage. The trend continued as the Parisians seemed stirred by Otis Redding's music, and then went wild for the spirituals of "Revelations." All the foot stomping at the end of the night made it sound as if the Théâtre du Châtelet might cave in before the audience could exit, but spectators were appeased with the habitual "Rocka My Soul" encore that audiences have come to expect the world over.

The French may find the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater exotic, but as a year of gala celebrations for the company winds down, with it comes the hope that the company will spend less time perfecting its image as a marketable phenomenon, and invest a bit more time getting back to to its roots as a progressive, creative entity. With Judith Jamison set to retire in 2011 and no successor named as of yet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's future direction momentarily remains a wild card.


This story will also be posted on ExploreDance.com.

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