By Walter Rutledge
Another bout of Covid (our third slow dance) prevented me from seeing the new works presented during the first and second weeks of the Ailey season. When Covid and I finished our Rumba, I attended an All-Ailey matinee featuring four works, Night Creature, Cry, Survivors and Revelations.
This was my first-time seeing Survivors choreographed by Ailey and Mary Barnett. In true abstract narrative storytelling style, the ballet captures the struggle and anguish of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Moreover, it portrays the transformation of the human condition and their personal triumph over oppression. Vernard Gilmore gave a powerful and stately portrayal of the imprisoned political activist while Ashley Kaylynn Green embodied a wife unjustly separated from her husband.
The rest of the works brought back wonderful memories of a summer emersed in both dance and Ailey. It was 1975 and in addition to my classes I volunteered for anything and everything that piqued my curiosity. In the Ailey archives (the attic), I was surrounded by sea of Ailey posters and photographs from around the world, my “mission” was to identify the ballets and the dancers in the photos for an upcoming Ailey book. Some days I ended up at the scenic shop off 11th Avenue where they were constructing the Mooche set. It was fascinating to see how they created the illusion to enhance the ballets.
But by 4pm my favorite assignment would begin starting with the trek from the school (59th between second and third) to City Center (55th between 6th and 7th Avenues). I would bring rosin to the main company rehearsal, and I could stay and watch the magic happen. For those too young to remember rosin was used to make wooden floor less slippery- per Marley floors.
The rehearsals were the pinnacle, this was where these finished artists perfected and applied their craft and artistry. There was lots of drama, but Jimmy Truitte’s rehearsals of Lester Horton’s Liberian Suite were always the most dramatic. (You’ll have to wait for my book for details). The true joy of the summer was selling buttons at State Theater in Lincoln Center during the season. I could see every performance.
The newly formed Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble had been learning a Duke Ellington work called Night Creature at the school, and now it was in the season. One of the rewarding things about Ailey’s ensemble choreography is how effortlessly he moves dancers through space. The movement and especially the transitions are so organic, subtle and musical that the choreography establishes its own pulse. In the third and fourth mezzanine you see the geometry of his choreography and at times it felt like we were experiencing Ailey/Night Creature breathe.
The second movement opening had a minimalist feeling that through the magic of Ailey fills the stage. Ailey simply and elegantly moved the dancers from upstage center to downstage center. His nuanced visual interpretation synergized Ellington’s musical grandeur with unforced élan.
The sojourn downstage was provocative and powerful (I came still see dance goddess Sarita Allen as the fulcrum in this formation). The wonderfully clever petite allegro section was another example of Ailey’s increasing interest in incorporating more ballet into his choreography. An interest which gained momentum after another Ellington/Ailey collaboration, The River (1971), for American Ballet Theater.
Cry is a testament to both our mothers and to stamina. The 16-minute solo could be called “trial by ordeal” for a lesser artist. Judith Jamison became synonymous with the solo, and I remember this always being an anticipated work on any program.
In the opening movement Jamison’s ability to fluctuate between the regal and downtrodden communicated Ailey’s message in sublime fashion. This was exemplified by using a long piece of fabric which was a regal head piece before becoming a wash women’s laundry. To be totally honest the second movement was Sara Yarborough’s. Her lyric quality coupled with her crystalline technique and empathic interpretation made this soulful adagio powerful and poignant.
The last movement belonged to Jamison! By this point her ebony skin was glistening from perspiration and the audience was clapping along as if guiding her to the finish. Her hitch kicks seemed to defy gravity, and she would do a series of head rolls that she would continue until the audience erupted in applause. (This movement was absent from this seasons’ performance.) As the lights faded and the song echoed “Right on be free” Jamison continued to feverishly dance into the darkness forever etching this imagine into our hearts and minds.
Revelations opens with music playing before the lights fade to black and the curtain rises to reveal an ensemble bathed in amber tones. Again, Ailey’s ease with evolving movement patterns, spatial relationships and the use of level create an environment that combines ritual and reverence. The first trilogy of dances culminates with the duet Fix Me Jesus, which combines sustained lines and plastique to create an otherworld quality.
I still wait for a place in the duet I call the “Kajiwara” in honor of dancer Mari Kajiwara. There is a very dramatic moment when the dancer performs a T (a Horton layout) and arches her back. Kajiwara would arch placing her head behind her knee. The audience would respond by breaking the ethereal mood with spontaneous applause. To this day I wait to see if the female dancer will attempt a “Kajiwara”
The umbrella girl in the iconic Wade in the Water section was another Jamison moment and Ailey’s lyric crown prince, Dudley Williams always got us “Ready”. One of my favorite performers in Sinner Man was Masazumi Chaya who attacked the second variation with a true sense of abandon. From a flurry of turns Chaya would “T” off as if hurling himself in space. His “devil may care” attitude and his high energy stage presence always trilled audiences.
The work concludes with two ensemble sections, You May Run On and Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham. Loretta Abbott, former Ailey dancer and partner of Ailey came to a rehearsal to coach the dancers on these two sections. To her dismay the fans no longer had an organic language, and when she expressed her concern to Ailey his response was “I know Loretta, they have to count it now.” Upon entering, the church ladies lead by the center dancer (church mother) would make a slow descent in second position to sit on the stools. This collective action also in the past garnered an enthusiastic audience response. In Rocka My Soul the men surround a church sister, and she is rescued from this “loose me Satan” moment by the church mother- another set of glorious character moments lost (well maybe not lost but muddled).
The present dancers are technically incredible, they are in another league from the dancers I remember from that glorious summer. Unfortunately, there is a spark missing. Something that reaches beyond technical prowess and speaks directly to the soul. This is not a new observation, the loss has been evident for quite some time. Maybe it’s the coaching, maybe it’s the times we live in, or our changing aesthetic.
In 1975 every performance of Revelations received numerous curtain calls and encores. The cast gloriously performed the ending of Rocka My Soul as an encore multiple times for unsatiable audiences. I recall one night after the fourth encore the curtain fell and the house lights came up. The audience refused to leave; instead, they stomped their feet and kept clapping until the house went dark and the company performed the encore one more time. This recollection makes the contrived standard encore presently performed seem anemic.
Our present crop of abstract and high energy choreography does satisfy a niche of the dance collective. Most of the people I have talked to still come and sit in the dark to have a vicarious moment. To experience an emotion, a feeling, to live through the bodies onstage and the stories being told.
This has been the gift of dance masterworks like Revelations– they are humanity in motion. The universal appeal comes from the indomitable timeless message of the triumph of the human spirit. We understand Revelations remains the company’s cash cow, it closed thirty of the thirty-eight programs offered this season, but maybe it’s time to give Revelations a rest.
This will force the company to stand on the shoulders of new dancemakers and worthy revivals. Maybe it will help bring the next artistic director to the forefront. A task the Ailey Company will soon be embarking on for the fourth time in the company’s 65-year history.