By Walter Rutledge
Ailey II opened their 2019 New York City season on Wednesday, March 13th at NYU Skirball, the five-day seven performance season runs through Sunday, March 17. More than a “farm team” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this 12-member ensemble has built a reputation as a solid repertory company; featuring stellar young artists performing dynamic, and sometimes edgy choreography. This year is no exception Program A (entitled All New) presented three world premieres by Ailey alumnus Uri Sands, Bradley Shelver, and Troy Powell; and one company premiere by Robert Battle. The evening of abstract narrative works could best be described as visually atmospheric.
Tracks by Uri Sands began with the full ensemble slowly proceeding downstage right (with their back facing the audience) in a single shaft of diagonal light. Ample smoke added the required visual drama to Burke Brown’s light design, which provided a stark canvas for the minimalist prelude. Set to the prison work song Let Your Hammer Ring the section’s steady progression was occasionally interrupted by a dancer simply standing upright.
In sharp contrast, this was followed by four sections set to the music of the R&B group the O’Jays. The work lost the minimalist approach establishing a lush contemporary look. The centerpiece of the work was the duet set to Desire Me. Antuan Byers and Marcus Williams navigated the same-sex duet with quiet passion; the sculptural elements of the work evoked a sensory reaction void of saccharine melodrama. The work ended with Stairway To Heaven throughout the section Kyle H. Martin is enveloped into a moving cloud like mass; that gently jettisoned back into the space, only to be enveloped again. The repetitive phrase provided the work with a holistic conclusion.
Choreographers are teachers of movement. They have the ability to imbue dancers with qualities beyond technique. Ebb And Flow by Ailey II Artistic Director Troy Powell is just such a work.
The duet, set to the popular Adagio for Strings, Op 11 by Samuel Barber, gave Powell a monumental task- to breathe new life into this music chestnut. Corrin Rachelle Mitchell was bathed in an amber and blue glow held aloft by Leonardo Brito. Sequestered in a rectangular, that ran through the center of the stage, the duet displayed a musicality that did not rely exclusively on the phrasing; instead it became its own moving visual voice. Powell was able to share the power and majesty of the music through his choreography; while giving the dancers an opportunity to grow.
Flock, a septet by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle, proved to be the most diverse work on the program. Battle’s vocabulary defied convention by avoiding classroom/technique- based movement. This allowed the choreography to establish its own distant voice; unencumbered by conventional shapes and steps such as arabesque, attitude turns and posse’ pirouettes.
The abstract dance narrative takes us on a tale of trust betrayed a kind of abstract Emperor Jones or A Face In The Crowd. Kyle H. Martin leads his flock until his own “feet of clay” are exposed. Originally choreographed in 2004 the present social and political climate gives this allegory renewed relevance.
The evening closed with the full ensemble work Where There Are Tongues by South African born dancer, teacher, author and choreographer Bradley Shelver. The amalgam of movement styles and cultural references give the work a textually rich element. References included indigenous movement from Africa and Europe; which created a universal and inclusive quality. The rhythmically complex music by french a cappella group Lo Còr De La Plana assisted in the universality by providing a pulsing audio score that transcended any one culture.
Ailey II continues to offer artists (dancers, choreographers light and costume designers) opportunities to develop their craft. It also continues to honor founder Alvin Ailey and his love for dance as a gift to all people. The 2019 New York City Ailey II season exemplifies this vision; one of the reasons this company has become a formidable force in its own right.