Ailey’s Astonishing Women, Ballets Russes Remembered

You didn’t need a crystal ball to guess that the annual five-week Alvin Ailey season at the City Center would

You didn’t need a crystal ball to guess that the annual five-week Alvin Ailey season at the City Center would be greeted with rapture by its full-house audiences and restrained enthusiasm by the critics. The message is the same, year in, year out: great dancing, inferior repertory. And in that regard, nothing has changed.

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There are three new pieces to augment all the old pieces they resemble. Judith Jamison, the company’s director and iconic presence, has put together something called Reminiscin’. It’s that people-wander-into-a-bar ballet, where they mix and mate to what’s presumably a jukebox selection—from Sarah Vaughan singing “Love Me or Leave Me” to Nina Simone singing “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Jamison has done what company directors are meant to do: She’s made a work that deploys a lot of her dancers to their advantage and gives them the illusion that they’re partaking in a Creative Act. It’s all standard comings and goings, although, to be fair, the love duet for two of the guys isn’t exactly standard. Luckily for me, I saw the second cast and caught the sensation of the season, the tall, thin, exquisite Alicia J. Graf (more about her later).

New Work No. 2 was called Acceptance in Surrender, in which Dwana Adiaha Smallwood suffered in semi-darkness while three big guys in shiny blue and with bare chests encouraged her to snap out of it. I think she did, in the end. Smallwood, she of the brilliant Saint Vitus’ dance attack, isn’t at her best in angst mode. The choreography was by three established members of the company, which was three choreographers too many.

New Work No. 3 was by Ronald K. Brown, whose Grace several years ago was the best new piece that the Aileys have had in decades. This one— Ife/My Heart—isn’t as strong as Grace, but it’s more coherent and less ineffable than the piece that came in between, Serving Nia. The curtain goes up on a man in white, while a voice speaks to us—in Yoruba. I can’t tell you what he said, since my Yoruba is weak and no translation is provided, but we know it’s a prayer, and I may have caught the word “Allah.”

Soon there are two groups of dancers going at it: four in traditional African garb (at least I assume it’s traditional), four in modern dress. They dance separately until eventually they dance together, with a ninth dancer joining in, by which time the men are down to long boxers and T-shirts and the women to slips. The impulse is spiritual, but the beat is compelling: Brown’s strength lies in combining these two qualities. There’s music from Ballet Folklórico Cutumba and by “James H. Bey (Chief Bey)” of Art Blakey and the Afro-Drum Ensemble, “and there’s a poem by Nikki Giovanni. (I’m pretty sure I heard the words “suicide bombers,” “sense of security” and “bigotry.”) In other words, all the credentials are in place. Even so, Ife is lively and may prove to be a keeper.

Otherwise, the company brought in Hans van Manen’s short piece, Solo, in which three men show off impressively to Bach. And there was an Alvin Ailey evening: the inevitable Revelations, rousing as ever, and a tapestry of excerpts from eight other Ailey pieces, from Cry (1971) to Opus McShann (1988). They weren’t performed chronologically, which was fortunate, since the inexorable deterioration of his talent would have been all too apparent. Also back was another Ailey exercise in religiosity and uplift, Witness (“My soul is a witness for my Lord”). Renee Robinson presided in white, the Ailey color of choice for spirituality.

The real news came from the dancers. To begin with, the old order is passing. Recent retirements have made way for a new wave, and somehow, although the company has more terrific male dancers than ever, the greatest impact is coming from the women. It’s not that they’re better dancers, but that they’re more individual. Robinson, the company’s prima, is now in her 24th year, and making it clear that she’s still numero uno—she dominates the stage. (There’s not a lot of spontaneity, though.) Smallwood’s twitching bravura is as amazing as ever. Right down the line, the women shine: the veteran Linda Celeste Sims, as one would expect; Asha Thomas, musical, deep, honest—she gave a very moving performance of Cry, really dancing it, no special pleading; chunky, powerful, appealing Hope Boykin, passionately committed to every moment; subtle, intense Rosalyn Deshauteurs; the vastly improved Wendy White Sasser; a new striking blond, Gwynenn Taylor Jones, with her big jump. And then there’s Alicia Graf.

She’s from a different world—the world of ballet—and you see it at every moment. That ravishing arabesque, those thrilling penchées, those floating lifts! But it’s not just her ballet training that sets her off: It’s the fullness of every gesture and movement; it’s her dance imagination. Graf, now in her mid-20’s, was a principal at Dance Theatre of Harlem until she suffered injuries and then found herself without a home when D.T.H. imploded. (Meanwhile, she graduated magna cum laude from Columbia with a degree in history.) When she was ready to get back to work, neither A.B.T. nor City Ballet would hire her. Why? This one had no room at the top; that one had no place right now for a tall girl. Considering the state of the ballerina ranks at the two major companies, one can only assume they’re out of their minds. (Although it’s been suggested, I don’t believe there’s a racist component to these decisions—City Ballet, certainly, has a strong track record of employing black dancers.) Anyway, their loss is Ailey’s gain. The Ailey style and aesthetic are never going to be Graf’s natural home, but she tried like mad, and whenever she appeared, she gleamed. Watching her infiltrate the repertory is going to be a fascination.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who’ve eagerly asked me whether I’ve seen Ballets Russes, which has been playing on and on at the Film Forum. As you probably know by now, Ballets Russes interviews a large group of survivors of that fabled company—or, rather, those fabled companies, since by the mid-30’s Diaghilev’s great enterprise had split into two eternally touring groups: the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe. All the great ballet names of the West danced for one or the other of them, or both: Massine (the key choreographer, himself a great character dancer), Danilova, Markova, the “baby ballerinas”—Toumanova, Baronova, Riabou- chinska—and hundreds more.

Five years ago, a grand Ballets Russes reunion was held in New Orleans. A number of these legends were still alive, and the heart of the film is their subsequent appearance on camera. Here is Alicia Markova, with her implacable self-absorption; Mia Slavenska, clearly an egomaniac of the first order (“With my kind of looks, [Balanchine] would have been madly in love with me”); Irina Baronova, modest and funny, one of the two most warmly charming women I’ve ever met (the other was Madame Stravinsky); Maria Tallchief, laying down the law clearly and authoritatively, as only she can; enchanting Freddie Franklin holding court—and, indeed, taking over the movie as he gives us more of the history of the two companies than we need to know. It’s nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia all the way—and nostalgia for a world that today’s adoring Film Forum audience not only never experienced but can have had little previous interest in.

Yes, these Russians are fantastic—working on into their 80’s and 90’s, demonstrating, teaching, insisting on their standards, however dated they may be. And most of them are entrancing, with their accents and anecdotes and egos. But there’s something a little off-putting—a hint of exploitation—about the way they’re trotted out and made much of. Can you infantilize the very old? Which is not to say that the filmmakers—Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller—don’t like and admire these old-timers, and treat them with respect and generosity.

But the co-directors lack in-depth knowledge of ballet and ballet history, which condemns the movie to failures of context and serious problems of emphasis and accuracy. I don’t think they grasp that after the war, the Ballets Russes was essentially irrelevant, that its aesthetic was dying a lingering death, basically unmourned except by those who were part of it. The film reveals a subtly ambivalent attitude to Balanchine. Baronova cries, “Bless him! Bless him!” Others clearly resent him. And no wonder: By 1946 ( The Four Temperaments) and 1947 ( Symphony in C), the world of Massine was finished, and the reign of Balanchine here and Ashton in Britain had begun. It’s only natural that the superceded Ballets Russes veterans would resent this comedown and the triumph of the upstart.

But the big disappointment of the film is the skimpiness of the dance fragments shown. Part of the problem is the way ballet was often filmed in those days: amateur photographers grabbing a snatch here, a snatch there—no real continuity. Some of what’s shown is riveting. A few seconds of Les Sylphides featuring the “babies” reveal just how beautiful that ballet once was and confirm how diminished, how lacking in expression, it is today. We get to see why Riabouchinska was so adored in Le Coq d’Or, but it’s only a tiny fragment—a Coq-tease. A glimpse of Baronova in Aurora’s Wedding, a glimpse of Markova’s Dying Swan, etc., etc. Maybe there wasn’t more material in these particular cases, but we should be told that. And certainly there’s a great deal of important footage that isn’t here at all. Instead, to make Ballets Russes into a full-scale documentary, the directors have juiced it up with irrelevant historical background material: Hitler rides by in a car; a bombed city is shown in flames; trains roar through the night (to illustrate how the companies toured).

Without exception, the people I’ve met who have been wildly enthusiastic about the film are not especially well versed in dance history (and why should they be?) and have no preconceptions and no agenda. For them, it’s a peek into a glamorous world; more, it’s a revelation. For me and others like me, it’s a missed opportunity. Still, those moments from Les Sylphides …

Ailey’s Astonishing Women, Ballets Russes Remembered