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Flash Review 1, 5-24: Heating Up New York
Palpable Warmth at Ailey School Concert

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

Wow, what a difference in climate there was last night: the cold and soggy New York streets compared to the prevailing warmth inside the John Jay Theater. I certainly had a decent share of curiosity and reservations over attending the Ailey school's spring show -- reservations from having been mystified sometimes in the past by the Ailey company's aesthetic -- and still overwhelmingly more curiosity, because there are few places of as diverse and comprehensive dance training as the Ailey, and theirs is a thriving organization. Indeed, the latter probably contributed to the palpable atmosphere of warmth among the attendees, the embrace that all seemed to offer to the performers. And might I say in advance, that embrace was richly deserved and oft-returned, as this performance was a stunner.

After some welcoming remarks from Ailey school director Denise Jefferson and Ailey II's artistic director Sylvia Waters -- citing encouraging enrollment and exciting touring, respectively -- the program opened with an excerpt from the beloved "Cry." Choreographed in 1971 by Alvin Ailey, this passion piece is captioned "For all Black women everywhere -- especially our mothers." The first company's Dwana Adiaha Smallwood tore it up in a fast lead-off finale... To the thumping music in the color-saturated lighting (a la Chenault Spence), she was all sinuous arms and rippling spine, skyrocketing extensions and whipping neck. Quite a feat to open the concert with a section obviously requiring such momentum. Finely done, and in her later moments she was joined by eight girls from the Ailey school likewise dressed in pure white and dancing with joy. They shadow the soloist and all snake off stage-left. After their bow and exit, a ninth girl happens in, in her Level X class-wear, repeating the themes, and is treated to a moment of coaching from Ms. Smallwood. It is a charming moment's exchange, yet an eloquent testament to the dance world's life-cycle. In the end, it's about pushing the envelope a bit, and passing on what you've discovered, right?

Next came three works by artists in residence Ronald K. Brown, Igal Perry, and Christopher Huggins. All three works were choreographed in AD 2000, and all three were perfect fits on their casts. Mr. Brown's "Migration 1&2" was grounded and tough, a taut accumulation of torsion and accented changes of direction. My focus was at Brown's mercy as groups dissolved and reformed marvelously, like fires springing up from coals. This could only have been accomplished through the clarity and skill of these dancers, who were clearly relishing the movement and the moment.

Igal Perry's "Conversations" caught me off-guard at first, for after four male-female couples had completed a fluid partnering section to a bit of Bach motet, an onstage drummer (Damien Bessman (?) on drumset) interjected. The tone of the dancers' conversation raised in pitch too, as their twinings became a little harder-edged. Periodically there would be Bach, and then a gutsy soliloquy from the drums. It was tinged with emotional responses to both musical modes which blended pretty well at the seams, avoiding patchiness, and again the student octet performing were the glue, the stitches. They're articulate and daring, at all levels from floor to air. The drumming was terrific too, and I fell into thinking about the spiritual callings from both of the musical styles (the other was excerpts of Bach's "Motet for 8").... Different approaches to transcendence?

Christopher Huggins's "Some City" (a work in progress) was a bright blast of urbanization, of a very appealing sort. Wearing unique-to-each costumes of black shorts/leos accented in silver (kudos to the choreographer and Elena Comendador,) fourteen virtuosi thrilled us with taut, ballistic, and flung phrases. They were great out there, all of 'em, walking purposefully or tearing into Huggins's material. They beamed. This was a dance where all the elements conspired for a patently hot performance, and it was smartly lit by Josh Bradford, all to a [surprisingly?] interesting and driving score by Steve Reich.

After intermission, a moody piece, "Still Falling" by Max Luna III, which was soulfully danced solo by Mary Hudetz. To aching strings (was it a duo?) composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, the oh-so-leggy Ms. Hudetz slinked across 'inconspicuously' before declaring herself and sweeping into a lyric reverie punctuated by soaring turns.

Following this were works by three other contemporary choreographers, all generated in 1999. (Were these artists-in-residence from the previous year?) Under the heading "Triad" were works by Robert Battle, Earl Mosley, and Scott Rink.

Mr. Battle's "Mood Indigo" took it's title from John Mackey's music, and his inspiration therein is easy to understand. The pieces are off-kilter, asymmetric and headed forward hard, and Mr. Battle's three duets are three distinct portraits. "Sweet Boogie" is bouncy and hand-to-hand, a caper and a social dance, whereas "Sour Heart" is slow, precise and sculptural, filled with dramatic imagery. "Bitter Jig" is serious competition between equals, in a relentless dance-cathalon with a thrilling reprise. Battle's keenness to this music is key here, and it pays off in terms of these duets' architecture and tone.

Earl Mosley's "Give And Take" followed, and was captioned "Within the moments of silence your word still feels like music." A fine sentiment, but I found few opportunities for any such eloquent stillnesses. Backed-up by a luscious wordless "vocalese" by Etta James, Tina Williams and Anthony Burrell seem a little too wound-up for subtle feelings, having to cover the stage so incessantly within a sparse and shallow vocabulary. Made me a little nervous, but not very excited. I wondered, when the music faded and then restarted, what was going on. That brief pause was refreshing, and I do love Etta James!

Third in this triad Was Scott Rink's "Solitude" (this Ellingtonian title came from the Duke's song of that name). More lyrical in nature, this work was filled with inventive partnering moments and some lovely swooping passages. It was maturely danced by Rosalyn Sanders and Samuel Deshauteurs, tasteful and gracious partners. There was a pleasing swirl to it, but the couple stayed close throughout, which also had me scratching my head over "solitude."

Closing this terrific assortment of dances, dancers, and music was another Ailey Classic: "Revelations" (excerpts from the section 'Move, Members, Move'). Performed by Ailey II members and a trio of "Sinner" men -- Amos J. Machanic Jr, Jeffrey Gerodias, and Clifton Brown -- from the Ailey [main]company, this brought down the house and sent me out of my seat. The students were going nuts in the balcony, the alums murmering with delight as those daredevil men squeezed those phrases, vaulted through the air, and made that floor still hotter. I must confess I love this dance, and am so tickled every time the ladies enter in their big hats, with their stools and fans. And "Rocka My Soul..." had everyone cheering and grinning. It was quite a finish, to a concert that showed a large spectrum of choreographers/ies and a mission to pass the flame. . . . Please don't think me presumptuous for believing Mr. Ailey would have been very proud of his artistic family last night.

(Editor's note: To see a video clip of the Ailey company, go to http://www.alvinailey.org/ and click on Video Clip. Warning: The file is large and could take as long as ten minutes or more to download. But it's very cool.)

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