Alvin Ailey reinvigorates modern dance

Dance company performs at Zellerbach

Claire Liu/Staff

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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is quintessential American dance, balancing new and traditional, embracing color, new movement, props and humor. Under new artistic director Robert Battle, the company has become particularly more contemporary, concentrating less on the Negro spirituals that defined its repertoire before him. However, this more contemporary edge is not a departure from the character of the company — the style is still trademark Ailey — but the program, which does not even introduce a spiritual until the final “Revelations,” expands its focus.

The show’s opening is exemplary of this: a single dancer on a stark stage, one light and silence. A sudden burst of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” jolts the stage into the frenzied “Another Night” (Kyle Abraham, 2012), ever uplifting as dancers in rich colors swing to the never-quite-resolving syncopation of the jazz. The execution of Abraham’s fresh and dynamic choreography reminds the audience at the very beginning that Alvin Ailey is not just another dance company.

There is an openness to Alvin Ailey dancing, an all-out expansion of the body which hearkens to the optimizing American world that initially gave birth to the company. Endlessly flexible joints fluidly switch, filling the box of space around each dancer. Truly, Ailey dancers work in three dimensions, including upwards. They fill the very top corners of that figurative box of space surrounding them with each leap and grasping extension, totally capitalizing upon their bodies and the full stage. At the same time, however, dancers still take the time to pause or move slowly and give weight to their motion. As “In/Side,” a piece from Battle himself, begins, the sole dancer lifts his leg magnificently slowly above his horizontal form, allowing a singular light to shine graciously upon it before it is swept around in more sharp and heated movements.

That dance, which followed the extremely emotional two-person “Strange Humors” (Battle, 1998), was a remarkable dance soliloquy that brought an exhilarating blast of postmodern gold to the stage. Dancer Samuel Lee Roberts’ performance was breathtaking and thrashing yet graceful. He lifted, leaped, rolled, threw himself to the ground and even stood with a remarkably personal conviction. Set to Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” the dance brought a narrative intensity that somehow gathered its power from the suavity of the soundtrack.

“In/Side” was also one of many pieces hugely impacted by the use of simple lighting. The unaffected colored light gave the empty stage depth, texture and atmosphere, while highlighting the striking geometry of the choreography. In “Petite Mort” in particular, the lighting added a whole new dimension to the performance: Colored lights shone in such a way that dancers’ shadows came alive in brilliant purple and seemed to dance on their own.

It is details like this that prove that Alvin Ailey’s difference from other dance performance can only be understood from seeing them perform in the theater. Unlike in traditional European ballet, the dancers’ flesh is exposed. The immense movement, the twisting and balance of some of the choreography makes the audience see the individual dancer and not just the execution. One notices their skin and their shape and can understand that what they are seeing is the flesh on a dancer’s bones. Moreover, there is a joy in the dance. Ailey performs pieces with a vibrancy that silently shouts the exuberance of moving the body, of filling the space around oneself by moving so fast that it is as if one is in two places at once.

And it is these things — the individualism, the optimization, the color, the character, the willingness to do something new — that make the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater truly the quintessence of American dance.

Contact AJ Kantor at [email protected].