The story at Alvin Ailey is always the same: the dancers. But having been away during the opening weeks of the company’s annual City Center lovefest, just ended, I have a new take on them. Seeing a number of second- and third-cast performances, I was more exposed than critics usually are to the company’s depth of talent. (Dance groups inevitably lead with their established stars, for reasons of both hierarchy and box office.)
And so the performance I caught of Revelations—Ailey’s gigantic hit, seen almost nightly—was filled with young dancers, a number of them new to their roles. It was—sorry!—a revelation. Not because they were better than their seniors, but because they were fresher, at least to these eyes. Pony-tailed old-timer Guillermo Asca gave us his strong “I Wanna Be Ready,” but we’ve seen it countless times, and it doesn’t evolve. Everyone else in the performance I caught was relatively new, and it was as if a layer of veneer had been stripped from the canvas. No single performance was sensational or even exceptional, but the ballet seemed renewed—less a series of star turns than a real ensemble piece.
Though I may regret the flattening out of the climactic “Rocka My Soul” without major presences like Renee Robinson, Linda Celeste Sims, Matthew Rushing and the wildly exciting Dwana Adiaha Smallwood (who, regrettably, has gone from the company)—only Rosalyn Deshauteurs among the women reached the heights of sass and ecstasy we love “Rocka My Soul” for—I was happy to be able to appreciate its sureness of structure and tone without the seductive distraction of powerful personalities. Among the rest of the young cast, Tina Monica Williams and Jamar Roberts were simple and moving in “Fix Me, Jesus,” and Willy Laury, Khilea Douglass and Olivia Bowman were modest yet persuasive in “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.”
THE BIG EVENT of the season was Maurice Béjart’s Firebird to Stravinsky’s own abbreviated version of his great score. This, apparently, is the first extended Béjart work ever to be performed by an American company, although he churned out more than 200 of them over a 50-year career to the hysterical adulation of European audiences—a Béjart concert in the vast Palais des Congrès in Paris is like a cup final, and on just about the same aesthetic level (though less exciting). The main virtue of Ailey’s bringing us Firebird (1970) is that it reminds us of what we’ve been spared all these years.
A troop of eight unisex partisans in gray camouflage huddle and convulse around the stage until the Firebird (a male one; Béjart was never very interested in females) emerges in flame-colored Spandex to the ankle, though with peek-a-boo glimpses of bare chest. Apparently he’s there to rally the troops, and he rallies them with endless repetitions of derivative and unconvincing gesticulations until his batteries run down and he’s replaced by a new Firebird. Or Phoenix. Or whatever. I saw tall, sinuous, unmacho Antonio Douthit as Bird No. 1, and he wasn’t very birdy, but his intensity and stamina were impressive. Bird No. 2 was Clifton Brown, who is always impressive, and in fact was the first-cast No. 1. Luckily for us, Stravinsky pulled the plug before there could be a Bird No. 3. The Ailey company will have a lot to answer for if this is the beginning of a Béjart invasion of America. (The choreographer died a few months ago, at the age of 80.)
There was another “major” revival: Alvin Ailey’s own Flowers, from 1971, a predictable drama of the self-destruction of a rock star, presumably Janis Joplin. She’s hooked on dope, you see. First, she’s tormented by paparazzi (flashbulbs popping while she acts out); then her connection turns up and she can’t resist—and so follows a druggy fantasy sequence of increasing anguish. Then she’s back in real life, a broken … flower.
Flowers is more structurally coherent than most Ailey ballets because it has something of a story to hold it together—usually he just keeps going until he peters out. The vocabulary is his usual mix of ballet, modern and Broadway—effective if you like a smorgasbord. I saw second-cast Gwynenn Taylor Jones, a tall, pale blonde who’s just this season coming to the fore, and she gave it all she had and all it needed: a strong, touching performance in a role that demands more presence than dance quality.
New works? Of course.
(a) A harmless exercise in urban pop dance choreographed by Camille A. Brown to the sounds of Ray Charles. It’s set in the subway. A bunch of passengers first wait for the train, then are in it. There’s the brilliant Matthew Rushing full of happy bounce; there’s Renee Robinson in a bright red top, making it clear that she can still cut it (much play with her purse, à la Fancy Free); there’s the relentlessly smooching couple, and the sneezer with his handkerchief, and the uptight guy in a gray suit trying to read the paper. As a 10-minute skit in a revue, it would be lots of fun. As it is, the most interesting thing about it is its title: The Groove to Nobody’s Business. Your guess is as good as mine.
(b) Saddle Up! Yet another bit of Westerniana featuring cowboys, horses (hobbyhorses, actually), saloon complete with saloon gals—the usual. Is there a word that goes beyond “pastiche” or “derivative”? Or is this effort by Fredrick Earl Mosley meant as a tribute to its betters—Balanchine’s Western Symphony, de Mille’s Rodeo, Loring’s Billy the Kid? Whatever its intentions, it’s value free. Poor Alicia J. Graf, poor Linda Celeste Sims, poor Hope Boykin—poor all of them, having to pretend they’re having a good time. Or maybe they are! Cavorting around in Western drag has to be more fun than rising up as a camouflaged partisan.
THE IMPORTANT QUESTION, as usual, is whether all these terrific dancers are being well served by the repertory. Most Ailey dancers have emerged from the company’s school, and appear completely at home in, and content with, what they’re given to dance, whether it’s faux-spiritual, faux-ethnic or faux-ballet. But an elegant dancer like Alicia J. Graf (won’t she consider abandoning that “J” to Mary J. Blige?) should be seen in vrai-ballet, where she came from. She’s a beautiful ornament to this repertory, but Dolly should be back where she belongs.
And Clifton Brown, rapidly becoming the company’s male star, needs to have his dance instincts refined, not exploited. He’s a thoughtful artist as well as a big talent, and dance artists need real art to grow on. (His beautifully restrained phrasing and plastique in Ailey’s finely crafted, subdued solo Reflections in D suggest just how good he can be.) Perhaps he doesn’t yet command the style he would need for Apollo, but wouldn’t you like to see him try—and with Alicia J. as his Terpsichore?