Mass Appeal: Ailey’s Latest Dazzles, While Morris’s Nut Remains Hard to Crack

Hallelujah! At last a new Alvin Ailey production that I can wholeheartedly applaud! How many years–decades?–has it been? All those faux-spiritual or faux-jazzy pieces, danced by the company as if they really were about something other than celebrating the Founder, the Successor, the Success.

This season, Judith Jamison’s last as artistic director, the company has resurrected (the appropriate word) Mary Lou’s Mass, a work that Ailey made in 1971 in collaboration with Mary Lou Williams, a superb jazz pianist and by far the most important woman composer in jazz history. Why did it disappear decades ago, while the company imposed such direfully inferior work on itself, and on us? (Oddest of all: Jamison herself starred in the original production. How can she have forgotten it?) Never mind–it’s back, restaged by the company’s mainstay, Masazumi Chaya, and let’s hope it doesn’t vanish down the rabbit hole again.

It’s a real mass, celebrated in the semi-vernacular, to Williams’ highly original, punchy score; the music picks you up and carries you along with its triumphant blend of syncopation and sanctity. It brought out the inventive and the expressive in Ailey, taking him back to his roots, just as Revelations‘ spirituals once had. He called Mary Lou’s Mass “Dances of Praise,” and that’s what they are.

The master of ceremonies–the preacher–is Amos J. Mechanic, and he dominates the proceedings without imposing on them. The other performers dance out the sections of this imaginative and energized mass–the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, et al. And in a sly and enchanting dramatic scene, he stage-manages an actual story–a great rarity in Ailey. “There once was a selfish rich man. … There was also a beggar man named Lazarus. …” It’s filled with human specifics, with pain and humor, and its two antagonists–small and plucky Samuel Lee Roberts as Lazarus, Yannick Lebrun as the self-satisfied, mean-spirited rich man–play it with joyous conviction. Solemn passages punctuate this work, as is only appropriate for a mass, but the dominant element is, indeed, joy. 

When you compare this music with the sentimental pastiche of Keith Jarrett’s score for Memoria, Ailey’s tribute to the memory of his friend Joyce Trisler, you see why Mary Lou’s Mass is so superior. Jarrett is a jazz musician trying to be “serious”–and coming up with pastiche. It brings out the fakey in Ailey–and the Martha Graham in him, too. Memoria takes us from the here-and-now to heaven, the heroine from white to bright red, the movement from formulaic ineffability to hip-switching earthiness. It manages to give us the faux-spiritual and the faux-jazzy. And it’s endless.

As for Revelations itself, the Aileys–in yet another self-congratulatory celebration, this one for the ballet’s 50th anniversary–have come near to doing it real harm. (Who would have thought it possible?) In a number of special performances, not only have a passel of young kids from the Ailey school been added to the action of “I Been ‘Buked” and “Wade in the Water” (50 dancers–50!), but “Fix Me Jesus” has two couples, not one (synchronized dueting) and–worse–three different men performing “I Wanna Be Ready” simultaneously: “We Wanna Be Ready.” All focus is gone, all feeling; one man’s spiritual crisis has been turned into a hokey contrivance. So much for celebrating Revelations. But under Jamison, hype has replaced art, so why should we be surprised?

Mass Appeal: Ailey’s Latest Dazzles, While Morris’s Nut Remains Hard to Crack