Saturday, February 4, 2012

Rocka My Soul: The Ecstasy That is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's The Hunt. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has landed in Toronto, and with an enormous amount of noise in the form of screams, cheers and ear-splitting hurrahs. The arrival of the New York-based troupe on our side of the border has always been cause for celebration; there’s no beating the potent physicality of the dancers, or the raw, often visceral connectedness an audience member feels for the choreography, often by a range of modern and contemporary dance artists.

But this time, there was added incentive for the standing ovation that greeted the company when on Thursday it gave the first of four scheduled performances at Toronto's Sony Centre of the Performing Arts. The run concludes today with matinee and evening performances of a mixed program. Since July, the 30-member ensemble has been guided by newly appointed director Robert Battle, a former dancer turned choreographer whose association with the Ailey company stems from 1999 when he was first appointed artist-in-residence.

Only the third director to helm the troupe since its inception in 1958 as a vehicle for African-American dancers and choreographers, Battle takes over from the esteemed Judith Jamison, a former company dancer whom Ailey hand-picked to succeed him in advance of his untimely death as a result of AIDS in 1989.

Battle has only been in the driver’s seat a short while, but he has already steered the company in a remarkably fresh new direction as evidenced by the first of two programs being presented as part of a multi-city North American tour that takes it to Montreal on April 17 before concluding at the end of May. For starters, Battle has electrified an already energized repertoire by mixing company standards with new works. These new works offer a radically different movement vocabulary and sensibility to present the dancers in a wholly different light, less as bearers of tradition and more as trailblazers in their own right. While the choreography remains centre stage, it is the dancers’ own stage presence and unbridled physicality (an illusion, actually, given the stark fact of how well trained they are) now competing for attention. Given how blistering hot the dancers are – it’s a rare treat to see bodies as supple, slinky and super-charged as these – perhaps it’s an uneven contest.

Linda Celeste Sims in Journey. Photo by Andrew Eccles

Still, the choreography is no slouch. In places, it is intricate, delicate and filled with airy balances, as seen in Journey, created in 1958 by modern dance pioneer Joyce Trisler. On Thursday night, it was exquisitely performed by soloist Linda Celeste Sims (Sarah Davey performs it tonight). Along with Ailey, Trisler studied with Lester Horton whose technique of chest contractions and hip circles also informed the direction of Ailey’s choreography.

Elements of the Trisler work were repeated in Revelations, Ailey’s own work which followed.

Also on the two-hour program were two works by Battle himself, Takademe (1999), a humorous solo performed by Kirven James Boyd (Megan Jakel on alternate nights) to a percussive voice score by Sheila Chandra. The Hunt (2001) is a group piece for six bare-chested, bare-footed men in ankle grazing black skirts lined with red, the colour of intensity.

Set to a thrilling drum score by Les Tambours de Bronx, this all -male work was a tour-de-force of animal magnetism, aerobic tribal drive and chiselled strength: it showed wonderfully that the energy Battle is injecting into the Ailey troupe comes naturally – the man is a choreographic wonder.

His aim is to showcase the innate physicality of the dancer, what ultimately holds the audience mesmerized in an Alvin Ailey show. His emphasis on vigorous performance and individual talent (each dancer, despite a range of shapes and degrees of suppleness, comes off looking like a star) is his way of saying that, while the Ailey troupe has existed now for more than 50 years, it is by no means yesterday’s news.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris' Home. Photo by Paul Kolnik

The company more than ever has its groove back thanks in large part to works like Home, a hyper-kinetic pastiche of hip-hop moves, rapid-fire boxing foot drills and salsa combined with air-borne jumps and group dynamics that showed the company to be sharply on the cutting-edge of what’s hip, hot and happening in dance today. This fresh, new 2011 creation by Lorenzo Rennie Harris, the Philadelphia-born founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement (a hip-hop dance theatre company anointed with as many international awards as accolades, including the Herb Alpert Award for the Arts), features an ensemble of 14 dancers clad in street clothes and running shoes.

They are the so-called everyday interpreters of the raw, urban beat that lies at the heart of this work which, despite the colloquialisms of dress and movement, is actually a work about the spirit.

Propulsive movement drives the group onwards and upwards, like dancers at a rave. Their tirelessly moving bodies are illuminated by the sky blue and fire-red colours of Stephen Arnold’s lighting design, while around them swirls Dennis Ferrer and Raphael Xavier’s eclectic musical soundscape featuring a solitary voice cutting through the percussive beat, preaching repentance. One-by-one, individual dancers break away from the anonymous urban pack to raise a hand into the air, head bowed, as if heeding the call to prayer.

But it is their relentlessly rhythmic physicality which drives them toward ecstasy, a state of being transporting people out of themselves and closer to God. This reference to a higher (and more profound states of) being at the start of the program showed Battle to be something of a dance curator, astutely building a presentation of works that would build on and echo each other.

Renee Robinson, Constance Stamatiou, and Matthew Rushing in Revelations. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Certainly, the unique presentation of the spirit as presented in Home foreshadowed the religious themes to come at the end of the evening in Revelations, the company’s signature work which Ailey created in 1960 and which, all these years and countless performances later, still brings audience to their feet, clapping in time if not crying hallelujah along with the Negro spirituals at the core of this still luminescent piece.

Revelations had about it a sense of renewal; Nicola Cernovitch’s lighting seemed brighter. The women’s dresses in the Rocka My Soul number also appeared more sunshine yellow than before. A quick glance at the program conforms that, aha!, the costumes have recently been redesigned by Barbara Forbes. But also the dancing seemed more buoyant and alive; none of the dancers was alive when Revelations was first staged, and so they are all newcomers to a work that is a core part of the Ailey tradition, and yet they dance it as something fresh and new.

Watching them was a joy; the legacy lives on.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

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