By Walter Rutledge
The Ailey II New York season, April 2 through April 13, marked the fortieth anniversary of the company. Founded in 1974 by Alvin Ailey the then titled Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble was one of the first “junior companies” to provide a pre-professional performance environment for aspiring young artists. Under the 37 year stewardship of Sylvia Waters Ailey II grew into an internationally recognized dance company. It has built a solid reputation and a loyal following, now rivaling many professional companies.One of the goals of most companies is to nurture and develop dancers, with the intent of keeping them long term; Ailey II offers dancers a two-year window of opportunity. It reminds me of an eagle that prepares their young to take flight. This noble concept remains Alvin Ailey’s selfless gift to dance.
In addition to developing the next generation of performers, the company is also a choreographic laboratory. Allowing emerging artists to present their works on the world stage. Robert Battle, Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented his first work on Ailey II in 1999.
Ailey II Artistic Director Troy Powell continues to wear the many directorial hats associated with the company. He is a teacher, curator, and administrator; navigating rehearsals, performances and a demanding touring schedule. For this fortieth season Powell has assembled a varied array of works by seven choreographers.
In Alchemies by Adam Barruch the group moved in regimented patterns, which had a stationary feeling. The majority of the moment in these sections was driven by an upper torso impetus with a strong use of port de bras. The arm movement seemed to emanated more from the latissimus dorsi that the lower abdominals establishing an expressiveness without a sense of organic grounding.
The stark clear lights created a dark atmospheric mood. Thankfully lighting designer Aaron Copp achieved this environment while keeping the dancer well lit. So often mood and murky are confused it was refreshing to experience the lighting designer’s intent and still see the choreographer’s vision.
Duet passages were interspersed throughout the work. Each had a strong use of imagery. The most memorable encounter was the duet between Edward Spots and Shay Bland. Choreographer Barruch presented a broader range of emotions. Spots and Bland were able to translate these to the audience with great depth.
Wings by Jennifer Archibald had an ethereal quality that gave the work lightness. It too was most successful in the more intimate smaller sections. The duets and trios contained very strong passages and exciting moments. Archibald and Barruch worked through a similar movement vocabulary, but fortunately expressed their art in very different “dialects”.
Cuore Sott’olio by choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska began with Tyler Brown slowly crossing from stage right joining a group sequestered in a down spot on stage left. It was a mysteriously lugubrious prelude to this otherwise vibrant and extremely personable work. An up-tempo male trio danced by Riccardo Battgalia, David Freeland Jr., and Jamal White followed the section. The section featured a delightful athletic flow and the bravura of a testosterone infused tarantella.
The three primary sections that followed were duets each sharing a different set of emotions and temperaments. Aubree Brown and Jamal White danced with the freshness and spontaneity of young lovers. The couple moved effectively around the entire stage with the freedom and abandon that was extremely pleasant to watch.
David Freeland Jr. and Jacqueline Harris performed a much more aggressive duet punctuated with quick unexpected movement and lifts. At times Harris literally climbed up Freeland body with a pedestrian vigor. The section ended as an unrequited tryst.
The third section was the most conversational in design. Riccardo Battaglia and Danica Paulos conveyed this non-literal but decidedly humanistic duet with nuanced candor. This encounter had the feeling of seasoned lovers who had acquired freedom through honesty.
The work ended with a clever mirrored reprise of the opening; this time Brown crossed from stage right to join the group on stage left. Throughout the work Brown and various cast members made ominous crossings between the sections. These were never really explained or resolved and the work, which was strong, vibrant and well crafted, could have worked without them.
Skarpetowska has an unforced ease with creating visually pleasing and satisfying dances that touch a universal chord. This is a true gift that in this instance did not need the trappings of “modern dance” to validate the work. This was the most satisfying work on the All New program due to her ability to bring freshness to the abstract narrative genre.
Streams opened the Returning Favorites program. Choreographed by Founder Alvin Ailey in 1970 for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater the work marked a new direction for both Ailey and the company. The abstract pure movement work is void of a narrative storyline and works through Ailey’s eclectic style blending modern/Horton movement with ballet lines and technical references.
Danica Paulos danced Recitativo with a clarity and commitment that conjured pleasant memories of dancer Mari Kajiwara. The entire reconstruction was thoughtful and thorough. It was superbly staged and coached by someone with a firsthand knowledge of the ballet.
The choreographic structure, that included effortlessly moving large groups in intricate dance geometry and in placed positions, demonstrated Ailey’s timeless artistry. This work should be required study for all apprentice choreographers Ailey’s use of choreographic devices including level, variation, symmetry and asymmetry and theme and development are masterful and classic.
We by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Robert Battle also expressed a stylistic economy and brevity. The duet had the familiarity of an old photograph from a family album. Here was a couple that conveyed a feeling of knowing as opposed to exploring. Daphne Lee and Gentry Isaiah George performed with quiet and nuanced introspection; this gave their characters a reassuring honesty.
Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s Rusty began with the house lights up and the stage brightly lit. David Adrian Freeland Jr. entered the stage as if he had wondered out to rehearse during the intermission. As the lights dimmed we heard Freeland’s recorded voice; it functioned both as a narrative and the libretto. The first section of the work has a very personal quality; the ensemble work expressed the life of young dancers both backstage and in front of the footlights. At times there was a voyeuristic quality, as if we were now privy to private encounters, and personal interactions that are usually unbeknownst to an audience.
The first section culminated with a quartet featuring Bland, Brown, Freeland, and White. Here Pouffer used unison, counterpoint and canons to his full advantage. The second half built nicely into a much more traditional performance. The playful exchanges helped keep the work focused on the personalities as opposed to just the performance. Rusty premiered last season and has had a chance to maturate into an excellent vehicle for the dancers.
Virtue ended the performance with a great deal of aplomb. Choreographer Amy Hall Garner has fashioned a dynamic lush dance combining a wide range of dance styles including ballet, modern, jazz and West African. The overall structure has a Broadway dynamic, which gives the work a very celebratory feel. The driving score by Karl Jenkins helped propel this work to its finale; but at times the work seemed more driven by the sound than the choreographic design. The third section, however, had a lyric theme, which allowed Garner to introduce new ideas and less theatrical movement passages. This created a good aesthetic dichotomy and helped center the audience before the exuberant finale section.
In Photo: 1) Troy Powell and Alia Kache with Ailey II 2) Alvin Ailey 3) Ailey II 4) David Freeland Jr. 5) Aubree Brown and Jamal White 6) Danica Paulos 7) David Freeland Jr. and Gentry Isaiah George 8) Daphne Lee and Gentry Isaiah George 9 & 10) Ailey II
Photo Credit: 1,3-10) Eduardo Patino 2) Eric N. Hong