The 50th anniversary of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has been the mother of all anniversaries. Well, it’s something to celebrate: Here is the most successful modern dance group in the world, with a mammoth organization behind it and a publicity machine that’s become a juggernaut. Which would be fine except for the increasingly pervasive atmosphere of self-congratulation and reverence, even of cultishness, that’s surrounding Ailey himself and his successor, Judith Jamison. Four of the dancers quoted in the souvenir program book talk about the “blessing” of being in the company, a company “that for 50 years has made it their foremost purpose to bring peace and love to anyone willing to accept it.” Sometimes it seems that Ailey is on its way to becoming a religion—not to mention being “America’s cultural ambassador to the world.”
The dancers’ energy, dedication and ability are beyond question. Their highly recognizable style is an appealingly energized mix of Ailey’s mentor, Lester Horton; African or neo-African vocabulary; Broadway and jazz—with a bow to Martha Graham here and a nod to ballet there. In other words, there’s something from everyone and something for everyone. Which may be why everyone likes it so much.
The first premiere of the season, the one that got the ballyhoo, was Go in Grace, made by Hope Boykin, a company member. She gives us a righteous American family—father and mother, innocent young girl and rebellious adolescent boy—plus a couple of street kids whose street smarts tempt the boy. The father dies, the girl grieves, the boy assumes responsibility, the mother endures. What’s interesting is the way the action weaves around the six-woman a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who not only sing beguilingly but take the stage with charm and authority, providing advice and comfort—often, alas, in staggeringly clichéd lyrics. The dance content is minimal.
More impressive was Mauro Bigonzetti’s Festa Barocca. Nothing we’ve seen of his work for New York City Ballet and Aterballetto, the Italian company he ran for years, has been on the level of this 44-minute celebration of Handel and the Baroque—and of Alvin Ailey, who encouraged and inspired him when he was a young man.
At the rise of the curtain, the entire company is massed upstage in stunningly vibrant costumes—both men and women in bright sateen skirts to the ground, the men bare from the waist up. The group sections are rousing in Ailey-appropriate ways, but the heart of the piece lies in three diverse and innovative duets, the first of which—for the company’s Apollonian star, Clifton Brown, and the cool, blond Gwynenn Taylor Jones—owes more to Agon than to Ailey. Hope Boykin, always a powerhouse presence, presides over the entire work as a gleeful mistress of ceremonies and chorus, knitting it all together. Bigonzetti has created the most engaging new work Ailey has produced in years.
This season saw a return to the repertory of Masekela Langage, to the blaring music of the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. At first you think it’s just another nightclub ballet, but it turns out to be an eruption of rage against apartheid and the corresponding violence of racist mid-century America—at the end a man crashes in, covered with blood, to die of his gunshot wounds. It’s colorful, it’s worthy, it’s watchable—it’s a terrific dancer op. But it’s not particularly interesting dance.
Far more welcome was the new production of Ailey’s first success, Blues Suite, also set in a club, with a spirited group of jazz/blues musicians onstage. Like so much of Ailey’s best work, it’s episodic—he can’t really structure anything extended. But he clearly poured into it everything he knew back in 1958, and it’s exploding with invention and excitement. He must have known that he was on his way.
I suspect that all the strutting and sassing were originally less underlined and stylized than they are today, and the costumes less relentlessly flashy; the whole thing sometimes seems more like a pastiche of the period than out of the period itself. But this is a substantial piece, to my mind Ailey’s finest apart from Revelations, which came along two years later. How disquieting that over the next three decades he never surpassed these two early triumphs.
Another happy return to the rep was George Faison’s 1971 Suite Otis, to six numbers sung by Otis Redding. Redding was the greatest of male soul singers, and the Aileys certainly have soul—it’s a perfect match. The costumes are bright pink and cerise; the swirly dance invention is easy and fun; the singing is sublime. Suite Otis is one of the best ballets-set-to-pop-songs I know, this side of Twyla Tharp.
THE José Limón company reveals another (and radically different) universe. Limón was a dancer and choreographer of challenging dramatic power, and his most famous piece, The Moor’s Pavane—a compressed re-imagining of Othello—is to him what Revelations is to Ailey: a signature work that inevitably thrills audiences. Its glorious Purcell score, its sumptuous costumes (by Limón’s wife, Pauline Lawrence) and the conviction and impeccably organized structure of the choreography for its four tormented characters come together to form a minor masterwork.