The Aileys Find Their Way: With New Additions to the Repertory, Robert Battle’s Company Looks to the Future

Wayne McGregor’s 'Chroma' was a standout

'Grace.'

‘Grace.’

Robert Battle became the new artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, succeeding the formidable Judith Jamison, who had herself succeeded Ailey, the founder. The company was always wildly successful, the dancing spectacular, yet for almost 15 years now, I’ve been attending with a heavy heart, because the repertory was so inferior. Almost all of Ailey’s own pieces, with the exception of the inevitably stirring Revelations (seen on nearly every program), came across as dated and tiresome, with their lumpy mix of Martha Graham, Broadway, Africanisms and faux spirituality. (This year’s Memoria is a case in point.) As for Jamison, she was a force of nature but useless as a choreographer. A few outstanding works slipped into the repertory—the worthiest being Ronald K. Brown’s Grace—but on the whole, what we were given, year after year, through the company’s sold-out, five-week seasons at the City Center, could be compressed into four words: terrific dancers, lackluster dances.

It quickly became clear that Battle was determined to refresh the repertory. His most daring move was to bring in Paul Taylor’s Arden Court, that highly charged, ebullient masterpiece set to the exhilarating music of the Baroque composer William Boyce. The dancers gave it their all—in the first season, a little too much of their all; they had the energy, the drive, the delight but not yet the refinement of the Taylor way of movement. This year, they found that refinement without losing their propulsive attack. This was an Arden Court to be proud of, and the audience’s passionate response was the real thing, not the automatic applause it gives everything.

Another happy acquisition was Rennie Harris’ Home, in which a loner—originally the great Matthew Rushing, now, alternating with him, the very bright comer Daniel Harder, who even resembles him—circles a bunch of dynamic and colorful hip-hoppers, striving for a way to join the community. The core group struts its stuff, individually and together, until at last it makes way for the stranger. Or is he an outcast, returning “home”? The individual bits aren’t particularly original, but the accumulative effect is heady. Ailey dancers live on energy, and Home, like Arden Court, demands it.

So, too, does a new addition to the repertory this season, Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (Part I), to Mendelssohn’s glorious “Octet for Strings.” Alas, the music is exploited, not embodied, and the piece as a whole, for all its special effects—the slides, the tumbles—comes across as the work of a choreographer who has seen Taylor’s Esplanade too many times without learning anything from it. Scheduling it on the same program as Arden Court didn’t help: the similarities were all too apparent—and so was the difference in quality.

Much more daring, and much more successful, was Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, a high-voltage, high-risk ensemble piece by this important British choreographer. Some people find his work arid and forced. I’m always drawn to its go-for-broke excitements, even if it’s not always clear what they’re leading to. The look is white, severe; the difficulties daunting. The company rose to them with all the relentless drive McGregor demands. This is highly exciting work, and again the audience rose to it wholeheartedly.

Lift, a new piece by the trendy Aszure Barton, was no more convincing than anything else I’ve seen by her. Poor new music, poor new costumes, poor dance invention; only the spelling of her name is original. Far worse, though, is Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, a piece of Eurotrash that has crept into the repertory of all too many companies. We didn’t need it in your company, Mr. Battle; it’s your one real failure of taste.

A new piece by Ronald K. Brown, Four Corners, didn’t make as strong an impression as his Grace continues to do. The movement—all undulation and thrust—is strong and seductive, but I don’t yet see its structure or its point. Whereas Grace continues to challenge and move us. Linda Celeste Sims is inspiring as the spiritual leader, perhaps the God, who leads her people to redemption. Alicia Graf Mack, delicate and powerful, is her wonderful counterpart—in red until she and her group join the Sims group in white and depart, purified, through the pearly gates. 

The repertory was punctuated by duets, including a revival of Ailey’s Pas de Duke, a pièce d’occasion made in 1976 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jamison—contrasting her height with his slightness and making jokes about their so-different dance styles. Pas de Duke makes less of an impact with less charismatic, though highly attractive, performers. 

So many Ailey dancers are so good that there’s no way to list them all or single out all those who made a special impression. Even so: I was especially taken by Sean A. Carmon, a thin, wiry man who’s both technically strong and a discriminating artist. (He stood out, for instance, for the subtlety of his performance in the “Sinner Man” section of Revelations.

The lesson I take from the season’s programming is that Robert Battle is deliberately moving away from the corny old rep in favor of dances that demand higher and higher levels of energy and dynamism, and choreographers whose talents he’s hoping will revitalize the imagination of his dancers. His personal appearances seem calculatedly cute and low-pressure after the often-grandiose Jamison, and there’s less celebration of the sacred past. The Aileys have come off their high horse and are doing stimulating new work. This year, I found myself actually eager to get to their performances, and most of the time, they didn’t disappoint.