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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Ailey's Legacy Alive at the Academy

by Lewis Whittington

May 13-15, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

Among the many reasons Philadelphians love Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is that artistic director Judith Jamison grew up here. Add to that the fact that several of the company’s dancers have over the years worked with Joan Myers Brown’s company, Philadanco, in West Philly. But the lusty reception that flooded over the footlights of the Academy of Music for AAADT’s return after two years was mostly in appreciation of the Ailey legacy, whose artistic vision is vibrantly alive through two generations of dancers.

Fifteen years after his death, the troupe is presenting a retrospective rich with moments displaying Ailey’s steely technique, joyous movement and thrilling theatricality. Three separate bills were presented in four performances at the Academy of Music for a broad sampling of AAADT’s range to commemorate their 45th season.

The mysteries of the opening work, Alonzo King’s dramatic “Heart Songs,” began when women dressed in illuminated bubble tutus bounded onstage against drums with quick tempo African-fusion dance rhythms as ascending drapes flowed behind them.

In a commanding duet, Matthew Rushing and Jeffrey Gerodias, dressed in shredded tan muslin tunics, were tender and virile at once. King seems to have a floating narrative about grief and loss. Powerful scenes unfold, even though the score seems to be a tug of war between spiritual Arab music and African tribal. The ending tableaux, which had a dozen dancers in sky-blue tights and skirts flowing rhythmic circles, was a perfect resolution.

Elisa Monte’s sensuous “Treading” (1979), scored to sonorous-techno by Philadelphia composer Steve Reich, was transfixing from the moment Clifton Brown took downstage center in a crablike plié that morphed into rounded and angular poses that kept evolving.

The hypnotic prologue ended with the appearance of Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell suddenly moving forward through his legs. This duet was a melding of two bodies that went into what one thinks of as the usual intimacies; eroticism was almost beside the point. It was an allegory of one’s physical life with another, whether it was a moment of sharing your body or the evolution of two lives together for life. Their eyes locked on each other; their bodies were so fluid they moved together like pools of mercury.

Robert Battle’s “Juba” was based in part by African survival dance; also suggested, religious-cultural references of Hasidic dances, eastern European and gypsy dances. Hope Boykin, Matthew Rushing, Abdur-Rahim Jackson and Samuel Deshauteurs clasping each other’s hands overhead and circling together suggested cross-cultural rituals. The simplicity is intoxicating, but Battle mixes it up with individual dancers breaking away in epileptic steps and grotesque poses. By the end the dancers are pumping the air and hopping around in childlike jubilation.

It’s no wonder that the company does Ailey’s “Revelations” in every performance. Its scenarios are a baptism of movement framed by classic spirituals like “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” and “The Day is Past and Gone.” You can imagine its relevance when it was first performed 45 years ago at a crucial period in the African American civil rights movement. It has cumulative relevance now, socially and for the dancers -- the processional “Take Me to the Water;” the trio of African American in “Sinner Man,” men trying to escape racial injustice.

The energy in the premiere’s bill was in sharp contrast to some of the sluggishness at the Saturday matinee. It was “Ailey Classics” with an uneven sampling of the choreographer’s works.

Some observations:

“Memoria” (1979) was a heartfelt Ailey meditation to a lost friend, scored to Keith Jarrett’s modern dirge “Runes-Solara March.” Its structure is almost an ABC primer of Horton studio technique -- deep splayed out plies, triangular torsos, arabesque inversions and arms reaching for the stars, but there is little in variation and, by now, clichéd transitions. Briana Reed gave an earnest performance, but was physically tentative in key points.

There is one dazzling moment when Reed scaled two dancers like she was stepping onto a cloud. But, the earnest theme brought the ensemble behind the music and barely hit the finish, which fizzled so badly that the audience seemed to reluctantly applaud. Similar heaviness and datedness were felt later in the funk-jazz fusion of “Phases” with moves that were fuzzy in conception and uninspired in performance.

After “Memoria,” “Night Creatures” began a second later with an undulating V-line of 15 dancers in leopard spotted bodysuits regally led by Linda Celeste Sims, moving to Duke Ellington’s music of the same title. The excerpts from Movements 2 and 3 provided little of the choreographic depth of the entire work, but Ailey wittily interprets Ellington’s subtext, “Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come OUT at night, they come ON.”

So beloved is singer Donny Hathaway’s rendition of the Leon Russell ballad “A Song for You” that just hearing his splendid voice again sparked applause. Jeffrey Gerodias, dressed in a pale blue unitard, brought home Ailey’s expressionism.

”For ‘Bird’ --With Love” is a lush costume drama set at the legendary jazz club, Birdland, where Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie became the jazz royalty. Ailey conjures up the band and styling club crowd in a tight, dizzying tableaux by using lindy, jive and cabaret dance references. Matthew Rushing as Gillespie mimed playing “Night in Tunisia” as he whirled and vamped as “the” man with the horn. He danced with the horn as a part of his body, not a prop, and tossed off razor-sharp turns, slides and arrests.

Finally, “Cry,” made famous by Judith Jamison, is a triumphant meditation “for and about black women.” Like “Revelations,” Dwana Adiaha Smallwood brings this joyous work fully alive, pumping her ruffled skirt, and joined by Asha Thomas and Reed, it remains a manifesto like no other.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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