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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

'Firebird', 'Reflections in D', 'Revelations'

by Elizabeth McPherson

November 28, 2007 -- New York City Center, New York City

Opening night of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s 2007 New York season at City Center was a joyous occasion. Audience members, ushers, and ticket takers all seemed caught up in the excitement of the evening. Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey company, introduced the dances, speaking from her notes but then moving away from them in a wonderfully impromptu manner that welcomed the audience into her community.

The first dance performed was “Firebird” (1970) choreographed by Maurice Béjart to Igor Stravinsky’s score of 1910. Following Béjart’s very recent death, the performance was a fitting tribute to a masterful choreographer. Turning tradition on its heels, the firebird is played by a male dancer, in this case Clifton Brown. The rest of the ensemble are dressed in boxy gray shirts and pants, looking as if they just tumbled out of communist China of the 1960s. A large red spot, achieved through lighting, again brought to mind communism. The firebird materializes out of the spot as if he were communism’s very embodiment rising out of the people’s imaginations. The ensemble “peasants” seem to be entranced by, yet fearful of the firebird. The magical creature dies at the end but is brought back to life or is reborn with the phoenix figure. Is this a message from Béjart about the resilience of communism? Or maybe the human spirit of the ensemble who seem to be driving the firebird?

Although the message is a bit muddy, the dancing was superb, and the choreographic patterns engaging. The dancers lying on the floor in a star pattern and supporting one another create vivid Busby Berkeley-like, kaleidoscopic designs. Choreography for the firebird shows both his ethereal bird-like quality and his innate power.

Audience members around me were less enthusiastic about this dance than the two following. The style of choreography, perhaps, came as a surprise as well as the unusual treatment of the firebird story. One woman exclaimed, “Where was the monster?!”

The next dance on the program, “Reflections in D” choreographed by Ailey in 1962 to Duke Ellington’s music was performed by Matthew Rushing with pianist Eric Scott Reed. Although brief, the dance has a lyrical intensity that Rushing elucidated with a controlled energy that seemed to pour from his body.

“Revelations” choreographed by Ailey in 1960 concluded the program with live accompaniment. It is considered a masterpiece of twentieth century choreography for excellent and obvious reasons. The flow of the sections and the choreography within each section move the audience through a range of complex emotions, leaving many swaying in their seats on this evening. The Ailey dancers performed the work as if it had been choreographed on them. The dancers used their backs in a wonderfully articulate way, like a rippling river—curling, stretching, and undulating. Although their top-notch technique was evident, the dancer’s dramatic portrayals were forefront. This is not a dance about tricks, and it was not performed as such.

Linda Kent, a former Ailey dancer, once told me that she wanted to dance in the company because she felt that the repertory expressed the “joys and sorrows of real people.” That human element was much in evidence on this opening night.

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