Alvin Ailey company astounds in Cal Performances residency

Christopher Duggan/Courtesy

While one may wait for the 11th-hour number during a stage musical or a band’s biggest hit during encore, audience members at an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance await the finale: “Revelations,” the company’s soulful masterpiece that has been gracing stages and changing lives since 1960. Though overshadowed by the monumental “Revelations,” both the company’s revived and new pieces do not disappoint. With artistic director Robert Battle at the helm, Alvin Ailey featured two West Coast premieres at its Sunday program (Program A), the closing performance of the company’s annual residency with Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall.

One of Alvin Ailey’s West Coast premiere pieces “Open Door” began the program. Reminiscent of a jewel-toned, hip-swaying mambo from a “West Side Story” musical number, “Open Door” isn’t a showstopper nor is it particularly original yet it is an engaging piece that expertly joins elegant balletic techniques with Latin-infused sexuality. Still, the dancers maintain a youthful camaraderie, reserving sensuality for a brief duet later in the program (“A Case of You”). Partners lined the stage, bathed in purple and blue light, as they fluttered bright skirts to the exuberant sounds of maracas, hi-hats and trumpets as performed by the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. The piece is a crowd-pleaser and a fine cultural tribute, but it is the other premiere piece from the program that made the stronger artistic statement.

Also in its West Coast premiere, “Awakening” is an angular, dizzying portrait of finding togetherness amid chaos. Clad in white, the dancers crawl, come together, face the heavens, fall apart, continuously oscillating between hopefulness and devastation. The piece features faltering and moments of chaos but is balanced with profound moments of hands joining. Their “awakening” was backlit by a wall of white, star-like lights and was occasionally accented by pauses to stare into a heavenly spotlight. The spiritual overtones are not isolating. Rather, the search for understanding and refuge depicted speaks a wholly human message. This is where Alvin Ailey thrives: in a place of universality. Were it not in the same program as the closer “Revelations,” “Awakening” would have featured the longest curtain call of the afternoon. It’s a masterpiece all its own.

Robert Battle’s choreography in “Awakening” was not necessarily set to quite as divine a tune. Though appropriately haunting, John Mackey’s relentless score is unbearably harsh the sharpness and volume of the composition at its opening prompted audible gasps and uncomfortable laughter. Mackey has composed a bombastic piece that is fit for battle choreography but not necessarily for Battle’s choreography. Despite its musical shortcoming, the energy of Battle’s “Awakening” reflects the company itself the same innovation and daring in the piece imbues the whole of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This same daringness has grown to define Alvin Ailey, and though the newest pieces only continue the company’s legacy, returning to the classics is typically what an audience waits for  especially if that classic is as brilliant and uniting as “Revelations.” The landmark piece, choreographed by the company’s namesake, has wowed audiences for nearly 60 years, and its power is undying.

A part of “Revelations,” “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” complete with fans, vests, and yellow dresses, served as the program’s finale. The final tune is one that would be sure to get a crowd dancing down aisles were it not within the dimly lit walkways of Zellerbach Hall. The beginning of the upbeat song overlapped claps here and there, with the shy clappers quieting themselves after a few beats. By the end, “Revelations,” as expected, prompted claps or at the very least toe-taps and head-nods from even the most sophisticated center orchestra occupants. Though it is grounded in the music of the African-American experience, the power of “Revelations” lies in its pure joy, an undeniably universal feeling.

From the fiery tunes of Tito Puente in a new number to the rich, bluesy gospel in the enduring classic that made the company a household name, Alvin Ailey possesses the rare ability to use its consistent soulfulness and jubilation from its dances to unite even the most diverse of audiences. The showy have demonstrated, once again, that since 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater “speaks” a language that all can understand.

Contact Danielle Gutierrez at [email protected].