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Flash Review 1, 12-2: Fix Ailey Jesus, Fix it
Following the Current Ailey Downstream into Narcissus's Pool

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Regarding the Alvin Ailey American Ballet Theater, circa 2000, I hate to be a party pooper here (see Flash Review 2, 11-30, and Flash Review, 12-1) -- really, I do! I rejoiced, really, to see my colleagues Vanessa Paige-Swanson and Mark Dendy rejoice at Ailey. I even did my best to fight my own curmudgeonly tendencies regarding this company by hoarding one of the potentially strongest programs for myself: With vintage Judith Jamison, vintage Ailey, vintage Bill T. Jones, and new to New York Alonzo King on the agenda last night at City Center, how could I go wrong? King and the Ailey seem like a match made in dance heaven: Alonzo has almost single-handedly, with a nod to Kylian, restored intimacy to the ballet pas de deux. It's a political crime that his work has not been commissioned for the San Francisco Ballet, in his home town. Indeed it's a crime that more ballet companies in general, in addition to his own LINES Contemporary Ballet, have not sought him out. But Alonzo's very strength, unfortunately, last night only revealed the more how soul train Ailey, once Modern Heaven, continues to careen towards Ballet Hell, leaving its soul waving forlornly on the platform. And "Revelations" trampled on the tracks.

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with being a ballet company; what's wrong with Ailey's inclination in this direction, however, is that it values everything that can go wrong with a ballet company, with little of the oh-so-much that can go right when technique marries heart. Ah, there's the rub. As a colleague pointed out to me recently, the one intimate detail missing from King's pas de deux is eye contact between the partners. I guess I've never noticed this before because the every other kind of contact has been so electric; most of all, the intricate ways the wrists connect, and how the partners twist around them. The touching is so intimate, that one can see the intimate connections even if the partners aren't looking at each other. My non-dancer companion last night observed that it was as if, in the pas de deux between Linda-Denise Evans and Benoit-Swan Pouffer for instance, a line ran through their bodies, from hers continuing through his, connecting them.

The other reason I've never noticed a lack of eye contact is the warmth and heart and soul and depth imbued in King's choreography by his own dancers, those at Dance Theatre of Harlem who've performed his work (notably Virginia Johnson), and his frequent guest artist Muriel Maffre. Alonzo is a master at creating for the abilities and personalities of his dancers, and creating movement that expresses and evokes those personalities. Most poignantly, I remember how he took the late, gifted Christopher Boatwright, under-appreciated at San Francisco Ballet even before he sustained an injury and then AIDS, and created movement that highlighted Boatwright's extraordinary charisma and the beauty of his face, eyes, torso, and arms. Ignoring Boatwright's handicap, King not only created for, but augmented Boatwright's innate gifts.

Unfortunately, even Alonzo could not surmount the handicap which has plagued most Ailey dancers the last two years: the bolt that seems to have locked up their hearts, preventing them from projecting love towards their partners or the audience. Thus, last night King's intricate choreography in the New York premiere of "Follow the Subtle Current Upstream" was reduced to little more than yet another none-too-subtle vehicle for showing off. "Look what I can do with this dance!" as opposed to "Look what I can do for this dance, and what it can do for you." The epitome of this egocentrism was the closing whipping spasm of Jeffrey Gerodias, which seemed to have only one goal: to make us shout "Go Jeffrey! Go Jeffrey!" Well, I'm shoutin' go, but not with the same intent. The exception to the rule in this ballet was Bahiyah Sayyed, who seemed less interested in using the choreography to show off herself than using it to really engage the space, and thus high-lighted King's space-carving ability in a way I hadn't seen before. She melded and merged with it. (I guess it's not surprising that Sayyed comes from Billy Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet, where dancers are trained to serve one choreographer's vision, and to operate as part of a group aesthetic.)

This pervasive tendency to see all choreography as a vehicle for showing off also had the effect of making Bill T. Jones's atypical Bill T. Jones dance, the 1983 "Fever Swamp," seem even more loopy. This is not Bill T. Jones as dance politician or healer; it's Bill T. Jones trying on his Paul Taylor suit. (Think the loopy "A Field of Grass," where they're all frolicking around, hippy style, and even toking pot.) In other words, this dance is more about attitude than amplitude, but these dancers are devoid of the drollness that might have made it at least convincing; instead, they see circus heroics where there is only clowning. An exception, here, interestingly, was Gerodias, who seemed to find the humor in this piece, being unable to repress a mirthful smile as the dance concluded.

The emotional void was apparent elsewhere as well. Seeing artistic director Jamison's earlier work "Divining" last year, I found myself surprisingly digging it, big time. It's a powerful piece, and last year was made more fiery by the unusually, for her, fiery Linda-Denise Evans. Evans's technical oomph was still there last night - man, that women's focus of eye and of body coordination is tight! As well, I love her ability to slow momentum, even walking slowly, oh so slowly across the stage to a quick percussive beat. But I was disappointed to see her back, demeanor-wise, to her cold-projecting self. This is a woman who plays her emotions close to the vest - a shame, really, because when she's able to marry those emotions to her mighty-mighty technique, she's a brick house, ow!

Speaking of emotional voids, I've been depressed by this widening gap the last couple of years in "Revelations," the Alvin Ailey signature piece enjoying its 40th anniversary this year. This dance actually seems to have deteriorated more this year - not just in its spirit, but in its technical execution as well. The arms and hands, particularly, are atrophying. In "I Been 'Buked," the subtly lit dance which opens the piece, those arms, which hit you in the gut when they jut out, were throw-away gestures, rarely punctuating. The hands, at the moment where all five fingers are supposed to spread and capture the light, were limp. The man in the back, supposed to set the protective and pleading, strengthness and weakness tone, melts into the background -- Leonard Meek, come home, all is forgiven! A positive exception here was Venus Hall, a repository of compact fire who forms a pillar of a Heaven-beseeching apex to the triangle that completes the segment.

But the most upsetting deterioration occurs in "Fix Me Jesus." This section, as I've always read it, concerns a couple, downtrodden by events and fate, pleading with their Lord to be fixed; and yet, much as this betrays a downtroddenness, the choreography reveals the strength, solace, and succor they are able to find in each other. They are pleading to Jesus, sure, but in the process they are really coming to each other's rescue. Last night, both Briana Reed and Amos J. Machanic, Jr. seemed most concerned with reaching the positions that showed them off the best, as individuals. For Ms. Reed, it has become all about how high she can raise that leg -- not the pain and need that sends it shooting up. And when, in the section's final moments, she stands on his thighs, they're just a platform for her; and for his part, it's only something he must do to get to the final moments, before he strikes his I'm so pretty pose.

And, most of all, everything that's wrong -- and a hint of what used to be right -- with this company was revealed in the "Take Me to the Water" section. Finally, in the veteran (but ageless) Renee Robinson, we see a dancer -- a spirit, really, who happens to have chosen dance as her medium -- who is using the choreography not to show her off, but to channel spirit; through herself, first, and then through the couple of Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Matthew Rushing, each of whom she gently touches, then stepping back to marvel at their dances, looking at them like a proud mother beholding and presenting her children. Once she leaves, however, it's a different kind of party; almost an Ailey version of Jerome Robbins's "Afternoon of a Faun." They're together alone, Ms. Smallwood and Mr. Rushing, but they're alone, even tho they're technically on stage together. There's a line in this song about "troubled waters." The only water here is the pool into which these narcissists gaze to faun at their own reflections. There was one little moment where I thought Mr. Rushing was actually digging Ms. Smallwood's moves; but no, false alarm - he was only marveling at the undulating of his own biceps.

I know I shouldn't take this stuff seriously, but in the souvenir book for this season, Ms. Jamison writes: "Dance is the language that reveals the heart," and then, a little later, referring to the Ailey dancers, "Through them you will discover your own heart's core...." Come again? The only discovery these dancers, for the most part, seem interested in is how they can harness the power of the choreography to show off the prowess of their bodies. For the most part, they can't even see each other; how can we hope to see ourselves in them? What I see most of the time are circus ponies, fascinated with the way their flesh captures the footlights, drowning in those pools of light, and drowning the company's soul along the way. I don't know what Ms. Jamison tells them, but it's not what she writes in the program.

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