A row of feather-skirted women leap across the floor, their precise synchronicity matched only by the movements radiating from flexed muscles and clenched fists, illuminating the stage with their dominating presence.
This is one of many iconic, enchanting moments captured in “LIFT” by Aszure Barton, one of the pieces making its Bay Area debut with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from April 1 to 6 at Zellerbach Hall.
“LIFT” is a testament to individuality and collaboration, two values that rest in the heart of the company.
“It was like Mr. Ailey said,” artistic director Robert Battle revealed in “The Making of ‘LIFT,’ ” a behind-the-scenes look at the piece’s conception. “He never wanted ‘cookie-cutter’ dancers.”
Alvin Ailey was an black dancer and choreographer and is credited with the popularization of modern dance and fostering a multiracial dance community. During his lifetime, Ailey created 79 works for the company while ensuring that the works of other choreographers were performed as well. The company carries on this collaborative tradition, boasting more than 200 works by more than 80 choreographers.
The company’s current repertoire is representative of the historical significance Ailey had on the dance community, keeping one foot planted firmly in the past with the other pointed forward.
“When I first came in, (Judith Jamison) was the artistic director, so there was this deep understanding, because she came from the original company,” said Akua Noni Parker, who joined the company in 2008. “It was this rich heritage that she passed onto us verbally, physically — when she could — by showing us and demonstrating.”
In 2011, Jamison stepped down from her position and appointed Robert Battle artistic director. Battle’s commissions for the company aimed to create an eclectic background while pushing the dancers to new creative heights, a feat Parker has found beneficial in honing her skills as a dancer.
“I really enjoy more of a challenge,” Parker admitted. “Part of my reason for joining Ailey was the shift, like a minor change.”
“I enjoyed the process of ‘Four Corners,’ learning the African movements and the challenges of that,” Parker continued. “(Our choreographer) Ron Brown always uses some type of house music along with some African music, whether he mixes them himself or lets one song flow into the next. But the challenge of learning that choreography is a part of the reason why I came.”
The company’s cornerstone piece, “Revelations,” was inspired by Ailey’s “blood memories” of growing up in rural Texas and has been a vital part of the repertoire for more than 50 years. “We’re really celebrating human beings,” Ailey said. “And we’re trying to make an identification with the black past through dance.”
“It is a predominantly African American company, but it’s not only an African American company,” Parker stated. “It’s important for people to see that on stage, because it does represent our repertoire in some way. And it represents America, and it represents dance theater as well.”
A group of dancers move hauntingly in unison, raising one arm at a time to the driving beat of traditional gospel hymns. A soul-deep intensity pierces through their eyes — an intensity not seen in other pieces. It’s as if the dancers have not only waited the entire night, but their entire lives, to air the grievances of their ancestors through the subtle movements of their aching bodies.
Contact Rosemarie Alejandrino at [email protected].