featured photo

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review: 12-16-99—Change
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 around it.

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 employed.

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 Liz.

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 company choreographers.

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 as well.

Go back to Flash Reviews
Go Home