By Walter Rutledge
On Wednesday December 10, 2014 the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre presented the world premiered of ODETTA, a new work by company resident guest artist/rehearsal director Matthew Rushing. The work is a third of an evening dance theatre work set on an ensemble of eleven dancers. Rushing has created a work that harkens back to the company’s founding principles of conveying the human condition through the soul and spirit of the African-American experience.
The work designed as a series of ten vignettes presents an overview of the singer Odetta Holmes extensive music contribution. Work songs, spirituals, songs of protest and folklore were used to weave a movement tapestry. This was brilliantly assisted by a multi-purpose set by Travis George and original artwork by Stephen Alcorn.
Hope Boykin embodied the role of Odetta, and as the central figure she was a constant and harmonious thread. Boykin’s broad smile, and effervescent demeanor opened the program with a warm and inviting “welcome”. Her portrayal throughout was multi-layered and developed, creating a pathos that was heartfelt and sincere. This was easily one of the best roles I’ve seen for Boykin – it fits her with the elegance of a Chanel suit.
Another standout performance was Renaldo Maurice in the John Henry solo. Here Maurice manipulated a series of nuanced isolations and suspended off-balance movements that spellbound the audience. His subtle approach had the soothing yet hypnotic effect of a ripple on a body of still water; and was in perfect contract to his deliberate sinuous attack.
The duet between Rachel McLaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis was charming. Set to A Hole in the Bucket, a music duet between Odetta and Harry Belafonte, the dancers captured the song’s humorous male/female banter. The ensuing movement conversation had such a humanistic quality we were drawn in and left hanging on every physical phrase and gesture.
The ensemble section, which had the most indelible impact, was Masters of War. Here Rushing not only captured Odetta’s profound protest to war; but through his use of imagery conveyed the effects of war on the combatants and the people they encounter. Tinged with nationalism, the section also revealed an almost ironic sedition that has been expressed during the Vietnam War and the present Mideast conflict.
Seeing this work and revisiting his first dance theatre offering for the company Uptown (2009) it becomes clear that Rushing has grown as a storyteller. He approached the task of developing a movement conversation through the dance theatre genre with good choreographic form and artistic commitment. This was balanced by an economic movement vocabulary and developed reoccurring themes, which spoke to the audience instead of bombarding them.
Dance theatre has virtually disappeared from modern dance in favor of plot less dance works with abundant athleticism and gimmickry. It’s a shame Matthew never met Alvin Ailey. Ailey would have been pleased to see this element of his legacy flourish through the next generation of inventive dancer makers.