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Flash Review 2, 7-27: In your Face, but in the Mood?
"Blues Suite" 2000 from the Ailey

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000 Sandra Aberkalns

Last night at the New York State Theater, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater began a three-performance run of an all-Alvin Ailey program including "Blues Suite" (1958), "Pas de Duke" (1976), "Memoria" (1979), and "Revelations" (1960). The company is looking great, and not to take away from the women, but the men are SMOKIN.' I must say that Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Clifton Brown, and Vernard J. Gilmore in 'Move, Members, Move' from "Revelations" were exceptional. Also, Linda-Denise Evans and Matthew Rushing in "Pas de Duke" seemed to be having a wonderful time together -- although I was a little perplexed as to why the man gets to wear white jazz shoes and the woman has to go barefoot.

When I learned that "Blues Suite" was a part of this performance, I took myself to the Dance Collection of the NY Public Library to do a little research (just the facts ma'am, just the facts). I knew that "Blues Suite" premiered on March 30, 1958 at the Kaufman Auditorium, 92nd Street YM-YWHA, but it was the following statement I saw on a web page that put it together for me in a historical context (I apologize for not being able to cite the exact source). "Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born from a now-fabled performance that took place on March 30, 1958, in which Alvin Ailey and a group of young. black, modern dancers performed."

So, my curiosity got the better of me. I decided the facts were not enough and went to check out the available videos of the work that helped launched a new company. One video was of a performance from 1973(?) and the other was rehearsal footage from 1985(?) [Mr. Ailey passed away in 1989]. We'll come back to these videos in a moment.

The live performance I saw last night was revived over a five-week period this summer, after at least a five-year absence from active repertoire, by associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya (who can be seen dancing in the above-mentioned videos). I will dare to go out on a limb to say that it is possible that the company used its archive copies of the above-mentioned videos (or others) to help reconstruct this work.

As a stager myself I understand and appreciate the fine line one has to walk with certain "historical" works. For instance: Is it more important to tailor the work to contemporary tastes, or to retain the nuances and the sensibilities of a time gone by? If you don't update the work, will you be left with a museum piece? If you do update a work, will you lose exactly that which makes the work special? There is also the added difficulty that as Mr. Ailey is no longer with us, who can say how he would have let his own works evolve?

Now before you all cry foul, I realize that I may be walking on thin ice here, but there were a few things that I liked in those videos that I missed seeing last night. When I compared my notes for the '73 and '85 videos these were the elements that were consistent even though they were two different casts and about twelve years apart: There seemed to be more contrasting movement. The dancers would alternate between very loose, relaxed movement, and contained, well-defined shapes. There also seemed to be a lushness to the movement that is not evident in the current production. Dancers were characters without becoming personalities. Energy levels seemed to vary more, creating different moods for each dance. The lines seemed to be more clearly drawn between the ballet, jazz, and modern elements.

Attitude comes easily to this company -- which, depending on the work, can either work for them or against them. In last night's performance I found that there was a lot more attitude that was in your face, especially among the women. The question that I asked myself was whether the women would "lose face" if they took a less assertive attitude -- what if as stage actors they played the roles of women of a time gone by? Are the women out to re-create a barrelhouse ambiance from the 1940's or a contemporary nightclub scene?

The Ailey dancers have become so sophisticated technically that the lines between ballet, jazz and modern have become blurred. I'd love to be able to ask Ailey, or someone like Talley Beatty, if this type of merger is what they hoped would happen some day, or if they would find it sad -- like the extinction of a species.

Pieces like "Blues Suite" survive, in part, because they will always generate discussion about performance. I found this production a little hard and angular, therefore it didn't sit that well with me. Someone else in the audience would say that it was because of the in-your-face attitude of the dancers that they could relate to it. In my mind I envision the barrelhouse to be a smokey, sultry joint where men and women came together out of a need to escape their everyday lives. Someone else may say that they were a cesspool of humanity with violence just waiting to explode, taking no prisoners. Ah, what would we do without live performance? Look at the conversation it has already generated between me, myself, and I!

For those of you that are interested in the choreographic process, this program offers a great opportunity to see a range of works by one man. There are common threads that have Ailey's name written all over them, and you can also see where he was trying to break away from those familiar threads. It didn't always work, but that's not the point -- is it? However, in "Revelations" music, choreography, and individual performance come together again and again for each new generation, and it brings the house down every time.

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