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Flash Review: 12-16-99Change
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999, The Dance Insider
It's said that if there
is a nuclear winter, the only species which won't be affected by
this unwelcome change of seasons is the lowly cockroach. A member
of this family--one whose size classified him in the 'rodent' sub-species--suddenly
appeared in the window of the Thai place, looking out across the
street at the stage door of City Center, where my guest and I sat
chowing down on Pad Thai three summers ago. My companion was serene.
I calmly asked--okay, shrieked--for the youngish waiter to remove
this interloper, which he calmly did, by placing a cloth napkin
My companion continued:
"Certain things happen in your life to make you go ahead further
from what you think you are as a person, and make you open up your
life more. It's not always easy; it has to be hard to make it easy.
That's why we have all this different weather in winter, spring,
summer, and fall. But winter never fails to turn to spring.‡And
there's always a reason things happen. We may not see it right away,
and I know I don't see it immediately. But when I see it, when I
accept it, it's there. Life does go on; it constantly will go on,
with or without you, so you might as well be with it, because it
won't stop for you."
My companion was Elizabeth
Roxas, and we had been discussing how the changes--many of them
traumatic--in her own life had influenced her dancing, particularly
her interpretation of the main role in "Memoria," Alvin Ailey's
eulogy for Joyce Trisler. Discussing her performance in this work
in Dance Magazine, for which I was now interviewing her, I later
wrote that it revealed "that she is a dancer with spiritual gravity....Roxas
plays a woman departing from her circle of friends and students.
Even when other dancers are swirling about her, it is clear that
she is at the center of the action. When she first performed the
work, Roxas would often cry. Later, she felt as if her character
were detached from the others. She admits this feeling had less
to do with onstage dynamics than her offstage traumas: her injuries,
the loss of her father in 1982, the disintegration of her marriage,
and her divorce."
Liz and I became friends,
and have remained so since she retired from Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater in 1997. While we have had our differences over the
years, one trait has linked us: we both value our vulnerability
like a lion mother protects her cub. We both expose ourselves in
our work. Liz in dances like "Memoria" and Lar Lubovitch's "Fandango,"
and me--well, you know!
In fact, it was this
vulnerability in "Memoria"--the first time I saw her perform, in
1995--that compelled me to want to find out more about Liz as a
person, to write about her. And it was this fearless emotional revelation--by
Liz and then-colleagues like Leonard Meek, Don Bellamy, Michael
Thomas, Toni Pierce, Nasha Thomas, Renee Robinson, Dudley Williams,
Uri Sands, and Lisa Johnson--that drew me back to Ailey the next
two seasons. All but Robinson, Williams, and Sands have departed,
and, as you may have noticed, I've been occasionally hard on the
current generation of Ailey performers. Okay, the word 'robot' was
Now, of course, none
of these dancers are robots; they are all warm-blooded human beings,
who, like Liz, have the POTENTIAL to use their limbs to reveal their
hearts--and thus enable us to identify, in our hearts, with the
work. We perhaps can't do what they do, but we can certainly feel
what they feel and, in fact, seeing these emotions physically hyper-extended
intensifies and amplifies and localizes and even helps us identify
and define these emotions.
Where these performers
have fallen short, in my opinion, is using that ability. Take Linda-Denise
Evans. She is one of the most technically adept Ailey woman. And
she is not fresh out of high school; she no doubt has the life experiences
to draw from to infuse her high technique with high emotional resonance.
I interviewed her once--when, as one of Ailey's then two parents,
she successfully fought to have on-site child care inserted in the
dancers' contract. I found her to be intelligent, warm, and deep.
On stage, while there's nothing to quibble about in her technique,
she has usually seemed to me a cold performer--at least as far as
I can see from beyond the footlights.
It was Liz who first
introduced me to Linda-Denise, when she was coaching her and Richard
Witter in "Fandango."
I had studiously avoided
seeing "Memoria" since Liz left the company; not because of any
antipathy towards her successors, but because I wanted to hang on
to the memory of Liz in the role, without any more recent experiences
to dim that recollection. Wednesday night's program at City Center
was billed simply as Ailey classics, so I was surprised when the
curtain rose, and there was "Memoria," with Linda-Denise wearing
the light magenta dress I had first seen Liz in, her hair bunned
in the same manner. And there, a few rows in front of me, dressed
in a fur coat, black top, and leather pants, hair unbunned, sat
After joking to my companion
that I would just look at Liz and imagine her in the role, I turned
to the stage and what was unfolding in front of me.
I've said before that
the great thing about live theater is you never know what to expect.
I've also said that this New York dance season has been marked by
surprise, and that no surprise is better than when a performer who
has previously disappoints me turns me on. As near as I can figure,
the section of "Memoria" excerpted last night establishes the central
character's relations to her friends/followers, ending with her
departure from the circle. The succeeding sections of the piece
include younger and younger dancers, until the finale, when a mass
of student dancers share the stage.
To surround her last
night, Evans had a stellar circle of friends--including Mathew Rushing,
Guillermo Asci, Sands, Bernard Gaddis, and Linda Caceres (particularly
poignant as a younger woman--perhaps meant to be a younger version
of Trisler--who passes before Evans, a memory or a shade). For the
first time, Evans seemed genuinely vulnerable. There was fear there,
loss, poignant nostalgia--in all, she was moved and moving. Linda-Denise
seems to becoming out of her shell.
It was, for the most
part, a generous evening from the company. Solange Sandy-Groves
was the star, witty in a section from "Night Creature" (the first
Ailey ballet I ever saw), duly burdened in the 'Fix Me Jesus' section
of "Revelations," and generous again at the end of Revelations when,
as the senior woman on stage, she gave the go-ahead for the encore.
(This is an old Ailey tradition; the senior woman gages the audience
enthusiasm at the curtain call, and then decides whether to signal
the sound person for the reprise of "Rock My Soul." Much of the
audience, especially in New York, is aware of this stake, and there's
a funny little exchange as the curtain goes up and down, and the
audience makes its case. Last night, Sandy-Groves made us beg for
it, waiting until the fifth or sixth curtain call!)
In a way, Sandy-Groves's
"Fix Me" is most demonstrative of the point (yes, there is a point)
I've been trying to get at. The woman's role here features lots
of high extensions. It is virtuosic; in the wrong feet, it can be
simply that and nothing more. And there seems to be a growing portion
of the audience that demands nothing more, applauding whenever that
leg rises towards six o'clock. Liz, who danced for many years, can
get that extension, but she always used it to make a larger point.
It was a sign of emotional triumph--or of an attempt to triumph--over
adverse circumstance. Sandy-Groves doesn't have that physical stature,
but she didn't cede. Last night, she revealed the burden that is
weighing this woman and her companion down. We saw a real physical
force, a current of strife, really, bend her back at the waist.
I was reminded of an
essential, fundamental truth about theater: It's not a matter of
one person being "better" in a role than others. Different performers
just bring different strengths, and different emphases. I learned
this many years ago as a playwright, when a role I had designed
as literally a dream girl was played by someone who was not my idea
of one. She won me over by elevating and revealing the tenderness
and humor in the role, which even I as the author hadn't seen. She
taught me something new about not just the part, but the piece.
Such was Sandy-Groves accomplishment last night. And, once again,
I have to "revise" my earlier, um, evaluation of Ailey artistic
director Judith Jamison. Her standards for what constitute merit
and artistic worth obviously go much deeper than brilliant technique;
she can detect a lustrous soul as well.
Another surprise last
night to me was Williams who, performing "I Want to Be Ready" in
Rev. last year seemed, after 35 years with the company, to be, well,
ready to move on and off the stage. But he reversed time for a moment
Wednesday--actually for two moments, pushing his physical limits
in 'Rev' and giving emotional eloquence in a "Love Songs" solo which,
if memory serves, was written for him and addressed to him by Ailey.
Also generous with their
performing time were Rushing and Sands, who appeared in three pieces
during the seven (?--woke up this a.m. and couldn't find the program;
argh!) ballets or excerpts ballets crammed into the second act.
Rushing was by turns witty as the nerd opposite a suave Sands in
one bluesy duet, and swift, deft, and musical--while holding a trumpet
for much of the time--as the hipster Dizzy Gillespie opposite Sands's
Parker in "For Bird--With Love."
The only hazard in this
type of well-intentioned cavalcade is--well, there are two. First,
it's presented as a cavalcade--again, well-motivated, but having
the effect for those that haven't seen some of the ballets of blending
them into one work. Usually, a pause separates different ballets
in an act, but there were no such intervals here. The other hazard
is that, well, is it fair to the choreographer to take segments
of the ballet out of context? Tho I still have a problem with it,
this seems more acceptable in the ballet context, i.e. when presenting,
say, the "Romeo & Juliet" pas de deux. There's more to that story
than this encounter, but we all more or less know the context. Presenting
just the jazzy club scene of 'Bird'--while it's certainly fun to
watch--eclipses that this tale is essentially a deep dark tragedy.
The uplifting jazz is part of that story, but presented alone, doesn't
it subvert the main thrust of the story which drew Ailey? This hazard
is even more apparent in "Cry," Ailey's paean to black mothers.
This solo is comprised of three parts--one which conveys the burden
and struggle, the other a bit more mellow and reflective, and the
final celebratory. In this "classics" format, we just get the celebratory
moment, whose very power comes from seeing what came before it.
It is a release from burden.
That quibble stated,
Wednesday was a nice opportunity to get an intro to the vastness
and depth of the Ailey rep. and of Alvin Ailey's gift as a choreographer.
After seeing the killer portion of "Night Creature" (to Duke Ellington),
for example, I have to say that Susan Stroman's swing-based choreography
in the current Broadway hit "Contact" pales--PALES--by comparison.
Stroman may be an improvement relative to what usually passes for
choreography on Broadway (Garth Fagan's "Lion King" moves being
the bright light of an exception), but in the larger dance universe,
she's nowhere near as gifted as Ailey in finding an original, inventive
dance vocabulary for a jazz score.
It was also a reminder
of the depth of these dancers--the sheer variety of tempi and mini-styles
within the choreography of Ailey they must essay, let alone other
And nowhere is the variety
of rep. or skills as apparent as in these marathon, month-long New
York seasons. Watching the variety last night, I was reminded that
we Gothamites are indeed lucky to be able to see all this. I'm fairly
sure that on the road, with the exception of some venues which can
accommodate the company for a couple of weeks, most cities get the
Ailey for a weekend or two, with programs usually comprised of Revelations
and the couple of premieres or new productions in the touring rep.
We get to see, if not the whole megilla, a health sampling of it.
And, just to fill you
in on something you may not be aware of: While the company makes
a mint on the opening gala--$1.7 million this year, I believe--and
over the long haul needs to have a healthy presence in New York
to keep its financial supporters happy, in general, companies do
not make money on a New York season. So it's understandable how
the season, besides being demanding on the dancers--there are, after
all, only 31 of them, performing 23 ballets--could also be taxing
on the supporting staff. And why the director of marketing and public
relations might get a little bent out of shape by a damning review.
My colleague Wendy P.
pointed this out to me, more or less. She and a couple of others
have also pointed out that the hazard of the Flash is there's little
time to consider and reflect. I would amplify this point: While
I think it's still fair game to go to town on the performance immediately
at hand, it's unfair, and perhaps unwise, to generalize about the
company in its current vintage without waiting to see how the entire
season unfolds. In retrospect, I can see that I should have waited
for such an evaluation until I had seen more of the gamut.
So let me close this,
my last Ailey review for the season, with a forward-looking suggestion:
When the company performed at the New York State Theater a couple
of summers ago, Jamison commented to me, with justifiably high expectations,
that really, this world-class company should be performing in that
world-class theater more often. A summer season there would also
give it a greater presence in its hometown. Our major white ballet
companies perform here for three-six months per year. As the busiest
dance company in the world, Ailey doesn't need the extra work, but
we could benefit from having them stick around a bit more, and I'm
sure the dancers would welcome a little bit less life on the road
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