The More Things Change…: Robert Battle’s Sophomore-Year Tweaks at Ailey Don’t Do the Trick

Happily, Richard Alston’s performances at Montclair are superb

Liam Roddick in Alston's 'Unfinished Business.'

Liam Roddick in Alston’s ‘Unfinished Business.’

After all these years of saying the same thing about the Alvin Ailey company—terrific dancers, awful repertory—I’m finally accepting the inevitable: I’m not going to change my mind, and they’re not going to change their ways. And why should they, given their juggernaut success all over the world? Audiences just love them, the way they love Cirque du Soleil and Béjart and Riverdance (the latter recently deceased, and not a moment too soon).

You have to be optimistic to be a dance critic, and so I’ve never stopped hoping, particularly after Robert Battle replaced Judith Jamison as artistic director and for his first season imported Paul Taylor’s Arden Court to shake up the mix and give his dancers something beyond Ailey and faux-Ailey and faux-primitive and faux-spiritual to lean on. It looked pretty good last year, despite its basic incompatibility with the training and the practice and the sheer physicality of the Ailey dancers, but it was too good to be true. This year Arden Court wassadly coarsened; instead of the dancers stretching themselves to do justice to Taylor, the dancers are stretching Taylor to look like Ailey. Bringing in an alien piece of major choreography isn’t enough—it’s got to be maintained.

Without the Taylor police on their backs, the Aileys, like most performers when coping with something new and difficult, fall back on what they know they’re great at: athleticism, push, look-at-us-ism. The subtleties of Taylor, the wit, the ease, the human connection are gone. The brilliance of Arden Court’s structure and inventiveness manages to gleam through, but that’s a reflection of Paul Taylor’s talents, not of the Ailey treatment.

As for Battle’s other choices this season, my heart sinks as I report them. Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (1991) is just as reprehensibly manipulative and vulgar as it’s always been. It’s a bad off-pointe ballet exploiting Mozart and tarted up with cutenesses—much (nervous) male play with épées in its first section, and in the second, much female hilarity with constructions moving on rollers that have been made to look like 18th-century ball dresses. This kind of meretricious work often relies for its effects on extra-dance novelty rather than on steps, which is just as well, since Kyliàn’s quasi-balletic vocabulary is so minimal and derivative.

The company looked far more at home in Garth “Lion King” Fagan’s From Before (1978). Drums, colorful Caribbean costumes, much shaking of booty (a bonanza for pelvises, both male and female), tons of energy, happy dancers—and why not? A harmless piece of pastiche like this is right up Ailey’s alley.

Another Night is a new work by the latest flavor of the season, Kyle Abraham, who has been “Heralded by OUT magazine as one of the ‘best and brightest creative talents to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama.’” He’s certainly capable, agreeably feeding the Ailey appetite for high-energy, relentless action. We’re at a party, the 10 brightly dressed dancers flashing and splashing their moves almost nonstop—lots of flirting, lots of sex, lots of good-natured athleticism. We’ve seen it all. But that’s what Ailey feels most comfortable with—the mixture as before. Let’s hope that next time out, Abraham will take a few chances.

Battle’s own contributions were all too modest. There is a solo called In/Side, which I saw performed by Kirven James Boyd, whoflings himself to the ground in anguish, thrashes, rolls around, his mouth yawing open in soundless despair. The music is Nina Simone’s version of that diva vessel “Wild is the Wind.” I hereby present this year’s “Oy Vey” award to Battle, Simone and Boyd—and everyone else who dances this role. Boyd reappeared in a Battle duet called Strange Humors, partnered—or shadow-boxed—by Samuel Lee Roberts. This is a less agitated and therefore more bearable snippet, but it’s just another opportunity for Ailey exhibitionism.

The best revival—and the company’s only original work of quality from the last 15 years—was Ronald K. Brown’s Grace (1999). It’s framed by two versions of Duke Ellington’s famous “Come Sunday,” and includes other artfully selected music from spiritual to rock. Brown presents a convincing and moving struggle between pure forces in white led by Linda Celeste Sims (now the company’s senior ballerina, following the retirement of the wonderful Renee Robinson), and the devils in red, led by the matchless Matthew Rushing … and purity prevails. (It’s a somewhat sexy purity, but who’s complaining?) Demetia Hopkins, a recent addition to the company, made a particularly strong impression.

The worst thing that’s happened to Ailey in the past few years is the vulgarization—the erosion—of its one undisputed masterpiece, Revelations. The company now performs it in several versions, including the one I was trapped at. The opening scene, the moving “I Been ’Buked,” is now swamped midway through by a swarm of extraneous dancers from the company itself, from Ailey II, and from the School—cute little persons indeed. The solemnity is gone, the atmosphere is destroyed, but the kids get a great big hand. A little later on,the deeply moving male solo “I Wanna Be Ready” is cheapened and undercut by the addition of two additional male dancers echoing the soloist. “We Wanna Be Ready”? (What next? The Dying Swans?) And the entire stirring finale is pumped up by the return of Ailey II and the kids, while down the aisles pour still more dancers rockin’ their souls in the Bosom of Abraham—and blocking the view of much of the audience. Because all these superfluous bodies are crowding the stage, we are denied the encore that has become an essential component of Revelations. And why this travesty? Revelations has been a surefire hit for more than half a century—maybe the chief reason for the company’s success. It’s artistic suicide to cute-ify it, and we can’t consider Mr. Battle a serious artistic director until he restores it to its wonderful self.

 

WHAT BALM TO FOLLOW THE FEBRILE AILEY performances with Richard Alston’s triple bill at the handsome Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Alston was hailed last week by Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times as the most accomplished of all post-Ashton European choreographers, and he should know—he’s been watching Alston since 1978. I first saw and loved his work only a couple of years ago in a piece he made for the small and adventurous New York Theater Ballet (they’re planning another for the coming year). Then last year he brought to Fall for Dance what was by far its most distinguished presentation, Roughcut.

Roughcut was also the opening work in the Montclair triple bill. Again I was knocked out by the flow of invention, the unforced energy, the consummate musicality. Music: Steve Reich. Ten dancers, all of them steeped in Alston’s style and breezing through the complicated footwork that is his hallmark. Outstanding among the outstanding dancers was a young Frenchman named Pierre Tappon, the latest in a series of virtuosi Alston has discovered and nurtured. Slight in build, nimble, fearless and exact, Tappon is a riveting performer—yet without clamoring for attention. In other words, not an exhibitionist.

In the second piece, Unfinished Business, Tappon leads the concluding Gigue, but the finest moments come in the central duet (to the andante froma Mozart piano sonata, beautifully played on stage by Jason Ridgway). Ella Braund and James Pett are thrillingly lyrical, sculptural, emotional—and quiet. No one since Ashton and Balanchine has given us so perfect a passage for two dancers—not Wheeldon, not Ratmansky, not Morris.

The program concluded with the American premiere of Alston’s A Ceremony of Carols, to Benjamin Britten’s ravishing rendition of medieval Christmas music. This is another simple-seeming but deeply sophisticated work (it touches on the Virgin Birth and the Crucifixion), deploying not only Alston’s entire company of 12 but also the all-female Prima Voce singers. (In England, it was sung by the all-boys Canterbury Cathedral choir.) Here the singers are on stage, at times mingling with the dancers—their black robes setting off the striking scarlet of the dancers’ costumes. Everything is highly charged yet unforced. As in all Alston’s work, the foundation is the steps, not the concept, yet the concept is true, and achieved. This was the climax to a superb program—as I say, a balm to the soul.

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