The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had the audience at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on its feet by the end of the performance on April 22nd. Presented by the Carolina Performing Arts series, the company, currently under the artistic direction of Robert Battle and here for its annual appearance in Chapel Hill, played to a sold-out and enthusiastic audience.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve been a huge fan of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) since I saw the company at UNC-Greensboro many years ago. Just prior to that performance, I sat in the audience, a newly minted dance major, recovering from my disappointment at the announcement that the iconic Judith Jamison (Ailey’s muse and lead dancer for many years, and the company’s artistic director following Ailey’s death in 1989) would not be performing that evening due to an injury. I had no idea that in a few moments I would be swept away by both the artistry and the sheer physical prowess of the Ailey dancers, even without Judith Jamison.
I’ve seen AAADT on a number of occasions since, and the company never fails to leave me breathless with the joy of seeing dancing as it should be — the kind of full-on, no-holds-barred dancing that reaches out and grabs you by the solar plexus in spite of the bad day or the fight with the girlfriend; the kind of dancing that makes you glad to be alive and makes you want to crawl over the seats and jump up on the stage and be a part of it.
These days, it’s not uncommon to refer to a particularly strong dancer as a “beast,” a term applied to both males and females. The term is primarily aimed at the dancer’s physicality and technical expertise; a dancer who is a beast is a dancer who can do it all and do it well.
Anyone who has ever seen the company knows that the Ailey dancers were beasts long before the term was ever coined, and they still are. Their eleven o’clock developpés a la seconde; their layouts with legs reaching for the ceiling and heads dropping almost to the floor; their liquid, undulating torsos that seem to have no bones — are awe-inspiring in and of themselves. However, when combined with the level of artistry these dancers possess, such technique ascends to the stratosphere.
“The River” opened Tuesday night’s performance. Choreographed in 1970 to music by Duke Ellington, the work was at turns balletic and jazzy, and sometimes both at the same time. It is a blending that Ailey mastered, as did, of necessity, his dancers. Fluid port de bras and floating pirouettes were seamlessly fused with pitched hips and shoulder rolls in the eight-section piece.
It’s hard to choose standouts in a company of standouts; that being said, the soloists in the “The River” were, as expected, outstanding. In “Meander,” Akua Noni Parker danced a flirty, sensual pas de trois with Michael Francis McBride and Marcus Jarrell Willis that was in equal measures glorious and brassy. Megan Jakel and Daniel Harder shifted the mood to mischievous in “Giggling Rapids,” and Rachel McLaren and Vernard J. Gilmore moved from balletic elegance to Latin earthiness in “Lake.”
Durham native Hope Boykin, who has been dancing with the company since 2000, brought cheers for her momentum-driven leaps and turns in the “Vortex” section. Samuel Lee Roberts brought the house down in “Riba (Mainstream);” his sassy struts and diva attitude dared us not to adore him. In this section, Ailey tucked an inside joke into the lines of joined dancers moving across the stage behind Roberts: as the male dancers continued their movement with loosely laced arms, the female dancers crossed arms and held hands à la “Les Petits Cygnets” in Swan Lake. Those of us who saw it chuckled, of course. There was so much going on in the choreography, however, that the joke wasn’t intrusive. It merely added a bit of a wink to an already humorous section.
Chenault Spence’s lighting evoked the many moods of “The River,” and A. Christina Giannini’s simple unitards and wrapped chiffon practice skirts allowed the choreography and the dancers to shine.
Second on the program was “Lift” by Aszure Barton, a Canadian choreographer based in New York who has created works for Mikhail Baryshnikov, American Ballet Theatre, and The Martha Graham Dance Company, among others. Set to an original, percussion-driven score by Curtis MacDonald, the piece exploded with energy from the first moment and moved relentlessly toward its culmination. The dancing was sexy, feral, confident, sassy. Feet stomp-jumped, torsos twisted and torqued, hips swiveled, shoulders shimmied. The female dancers’ fringy skirts (by Fritz Masten) punctuated the abandoned swinging of their hips, and the male dancers’ bare chests revealed their power and grace. I was dancing in my seat, moving with the dancers, the choreography, and the music and the lighting (by Burke Brown) and the dancers combining to create an irresistible centripetal force.
As is always the case when the Ailey company tours, the program closed with Alvin Ailey’s signature piece, “Revelations.” Drawing on the choreographer’s early life in the rural South of the 1930s and 1940s and using traditional hymns and spirituals, the work is both a chronicle and a celebration of a time gone by, one that was by turns hard and joyous. I can only imagine that the Ailey dancers must tire of performing the work (which always involves an encore of the final section, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”), but I never tire of seeing it. This is the mark of a masterpiece — that it holds up to repeated viewings and continues to excite audiences even after 50 years.
Oddly enough, however, it was in “Revelations” that I experienced my only moment of disappointment in the entire evening. “I Wanna Be Ready” is a solo set to an old Negro spiritual of the same title. Actually choreographed by early Ailey dancer James Truitte, the solo was performed in Chapel Hill by Antonio Douthit-Boyd.
I associate this solo most closely with Dudley Williams, who danced with the Ailey company for 41 years (and who is the only dancer who has ever left me speechless — following his performance of Ailey’s “Love Songs”). Williams’ phrasing of the solo’s choreography was nuanced, layered — eloquently expressing the figurative struggle to renounce sin through the dancer’s labored efforts to rise from the floor. Although Douthit-Boyd is a powerful, gifted dancer, his phrasing was flat, lacking the dynamics and intensity I’ve come to associate with this solo. Perhaps, he was just having an off night — and, perhaps, he simply fell short in my eyes when compared to a brilliant dancer for whom Ailey created many roles over many years.
This one small moment aside, Ailey, as usual, did not disappoint. I would have sat happily while they performed the entire program through a second time, and I look forward to their return next spring.
SECOND OPINION: April 21st Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Susan Broili: http://www.heraldsun.com/news/localnews/x740451614/A-performance-full-of-urgency-hope-and-joy (Note: You must register to read this article); and April 16th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/alvin-ailey-american-dance/Event?oid=3992046.
ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER (Carolina Performing Arts, April 22 and 23 in Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, NC 27599, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/user/AileyOrganization.
PRESENTER: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolina-Performing-Arts/9560250967, and https://twitter.com/UNCPerformArts,
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (New York, NY dance troupe): http://www.alvinailey.org/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/AlvinAileyAmericanDanceTheater (Facebook page), https://www.youtube.com/user/AileyOrganization (YouTube channel), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Ailey_American_Dance_Theater (Wikipedia).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s Triangle Review reviews, click here. To read more of her CVNC reviews, click here.