There is something magical about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. An invisible quality, an intangible spark that distinguishes it from the mass of other modern dance companies. It’s not only the technique of Ailey dancers, but also their ability to tell a story. We are drawn to Alvin Ailey time and again because there is something in their movements and in their faces that is distinctly human.
Though it began as a small ensemble of seven dancers performing at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) has since performed for an estimated 25 million people in more than 71 countries. A vital American cultural institution now directed by Robert Battle, the company celebrates black heritage in many of its pieces — though the entire company repertoire comprises an incredibly wide range. Original dances choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself are performed to this day, as are newer works with a more classically contemporary feel. This mix was represented in the selections for the show April 21, which included Matthew Rushing’s “Odetta,” Ulysses Dove’s “Bad Blood,” David Parson’s “Caught” and Alvin Ailey’s seminal masterpiece “Revelations.”
The evening began with the Bay Area premiere of Matthew Rushing’s new ballet “Odetta.” The 40-minute-long work was a compilation of songs by singer, musician and activist Odetta Holmes, who was referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” These included “This Little Light of Mine,” “ Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and an adaption of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Though “Odetta” was atypical in the sense that it lacked a driving plot line, it was a joy nevertheless to be so fully immersed in her spirit and her music.
Rushing’s choreography and inventive use of sets (geometrical prisms imagined as pillars, benches and train seats), perfectly captured the silky viscosity of her voice — almost as though the dancers’ every breath and contraction was driven by the force of her lungs. Hope Boykin acted as Odetta’s onstage embodiment, dancing with powerful litheness and exquisite musicality. But Boykin’s most striking asset was the fervor that radiated from her face, a mix of lustrous beams and deep intensity that captured both Odetta’s maternal spirit and message of hope.
Though Alvin Ailey is known for its traditional roots, works such as “Bad Blood” and “Caught” prove that the company is also at the forefront of technical innovation. Parson’s “Caught” featured a single dancer (Kirven Douthit-Boyd) executing a series of more than 100 leaps, illuminated only by the flash of a strobe light. Astonishingly, Boyd is literally “caught” in air, frozen in flight — one cannot say whether for a split second or an eternity. His incredible feat had the audience in a wild standing ovation, having just witnessed a man fly.
The highlight of the show was Ailey’s magnum opus “Revelations.” Famous for the iconic pyramid of dancers, all breathing and flowing in unison, the ballet was no less astounding more than 50 years after it was first performed in 1960. Though Ailey’s choreography itself is bodily and grounded, there is a transcendent, soaring quality to the dance that can’t help but lift the soul. First, it was in the progression of the music, beginning with the somber hymn “I Been Buked,” then it developed into the toe-tappingly jubilant “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
But this quality was most prominent in the spirit of the dancers, who became the beat of the music, striving onward and upward with the crescendo. Their tale was one of triumph over adversity, and they told it through the beams on their faces, the sparks shooting from their fingertips, every cling and reach yearning for some unforeseen future.
This is the magic of Alvin Ailey — the ability to transcend the stage, language, color and time to express something universally human.
Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].