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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
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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