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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre

'The Groove To Nobody's Business,' 'Portrait of Billie,' 'The Road of the Phoebe Snow,' 'The Winter In Lisbon'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

5 September 2007 - Sadler's Wells, London

‘The Groove To Nobody’s Business’

With Ray Charles music as the score, Matthew Rushing’s solo introduces this work by emerging choreographer Camille A. Brown. It is a mix of Africanist hip hop-ish gyrations and polyrhythms with the dexterity of contemporary and ballet influences. The movement language amalgamates into wonderful crisp and quirky dynamics. 

The action occurs in front of a painted cyc of city buildings – sky scrapers bent in a curve with a subway bench centre stage. Everyone enters in the next section, seemingly on their way to the underground. The characters are more edgy and enter with a stylised walk, bent at the hip. Each is a character one might see riding pubic transport; a business man, nice girl with a purse, a young couple, sassy girl, and young male teen stand out amongst the crowd. 

Rushing seems the only one wearing his troubles on his sleeve as his attempts to communicate to other characters is ignored or met with castigation. As the cyc rolls upwards to reveal an underground subway platform, our characters are now waiting for the train. As the action progresses, cascading layers of gesticulation for arms and legs while seated and moving around the bench provide the movement landscape upon which an assortment of relationships between our characters occurs. 

In the third section with Ray Charles’ singing tempering the sound, there are arguments between our lovers and feigned disgust from our businessman, who uses his newspaper to illustrate frustration as well as protection against movement conversations between the characters while everyone waits for the train. Still in character, the bows had as much parody as the dance itself. A bit of comedy and amusing to watch, this dance ended too abruptly, leaving one to wonder what all the wrangling was about. 

‘Portrait of Billie’

This solo choreographed by John Butler and performed by Alicia J. Graf relates the elegance and pathos of famed blues singer Billie Holiday. The portrait in movement begins with Graf as the beautiful and gifted woman that Holiday was. Graf glides about the stage with lithe back and head posed with every glance. 

A man, purportedly the lover, danced by Jamar Roberts, tempts the woman and the relationship creates leads from passion to forsakenness, dissatisfaction, and rejection. This disillusionment for Graf’s character leads to drugs and public indignation.

Graf brings her astounding beauty and elegance to the role and adds posed dignity when Roberts enters as the lover. Graf’s evocation is high on grace, but her portrayal of anguish is thin; not as angular or dissonant enough. 

‘The Road of the Phoebe Snow’

Choreographed by Talley Beatty in 1959 and danced to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, this ballet has lost none of its ability to mirror reality. Phoebe Snow was a fictional character created by Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad (DLW) as an advertising mascot. Phoebe Snow, a young New York socialite who always wore white, frequently rode the DLW because this company used anthracite, a clean burning coal that left passengers soot free. 

The dance as a metaphor of this reality proposes the story of young folk who might have lived along the road of the Erie Lackawanna Limited train, rechristened The Phoebe Snow in 1963, which travelled between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York. We begin with the tragic death on the tracks of a young girl, then flashing lights take us back to how the tragedy happened. 

A group of teens who taunt each other as much as they are wary of their situation is portrayed in ensemble dancing, which leads to a brutal rape and a glorious love duet. Jealousy amongst the members leads to the lovers being split, the boy beat up and the girl raped; the shame the incentive for the young girl’s suicide on the train tracks. The story is brilliantly clear, danced exceptionally and vivid due to the exquisite dancing of the company lead by Linda Celeste Sims, Clifton Brown, Briana Reed, and Glenn Allen Sims.

‘The Winter In Lisbon’

This work, choreographed by Billy Wilson and set to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Fishman, is sumptuous. The movement echoes this lushness in its cool colours of aqua and purples, as its amalgamation of ballet and jazz movement shape the scheme and timbre of this work. Renee Robinson and Glenn Allen Sims epitomise Wilson’s style as they perform this duet, putting the “A” in attitude as well as the “Z” in what it means to dance jazz. 

Gillespie is known for bringing Latin and African elements into Jazz – especially salsa – and adding his contribution to the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz. Gillespie’s composition “Manteca,” is used by Wilson for his final movement, and the dancers’ high-stepping balletic legs meet voluptuous hip swings and salsa steps. “The Winter In Lisbon” is sophisticated and carnivalesque, inviting the audience to join in the festivities; if not physically, viscerally.

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