Alvin Ailey’s Superb Dancers … And Their Less Than Superb Repertory

Robert Battle's Awakening. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Robert Battle’s Awakening. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

It’s now more than 15 years that I’ve been reviewing the Alvin Ailey company, and alas it’s always the same review: wonderful dancers, inferior repertory. Every year as I approach the long annual season at the City Center—the new works, the revivals—hope springs up, only to be shattered against the rocks of despair. Since the current artistic director, Robert Battle, and his distinguished predecessor, Judith Jamison, aren’t stupid, clearly there’s some kind of basic difficulty. How can it be fixed?

The glamorous Alvin Ailey’s own choreography was a mix of his mentor, Lester Horton, plus Broadway, plus a dash of Martha Graham. Horton himself, although a serious modern dance artist with a predilection for Native American folk dance, Afro-Caribbean dance, and Asian movement and gesture, was best known for the many Hollywood movies for which he provided the dances, from Moonlight in Havana and Phantom of the Opera to South Sea Woman. Oddly enough, in 1953, the only time he brought his work east to New York from California, one critic (according to Wikipedia) praised “the superb dancers” but complained that “one technical and effective stunt follows another with hardly any choreographic continuity.” The Ailey company today certainly gives us more than stunts, but the basic problem remains the same: there’s strong technique, there’s a style, but the choreography is all over the place—and nowhere.

The company has made its spectacularly successful way mainly due to Ailey’s masterpiece, Revelations, that jubilant and moving gospel-based crowd thriller—it can still thrill me after scores of viewings; audiences start clapping before it’s even begun. The company, over thirty strong, also benefits from superb organization, funding and public relations, and its school consistently turns out first-rate dancers to fill the ranks. Yes, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is a juggernaut. (Sometimes, I have to say, a smug one—there’s been a lot of self-congratulation these past years.)

But, but, but … which of its works do I want to see more than once? Unfortunately, apart from Revelations, almost all the founder’s ballets are choreographically thin, even when they have strong concepts. Blues Suite (1958), revived this year, was his first big success, and it’s smooth and atmospheric, very much in the mode of the Broadway shows Ailey once performed in—House of Flowers, Jamaica—but of little dance interest. Cry, the famous solo he created for his muse, Judith Jamison, is also revived this season—why do I resist it? Perhaps because it so insists on its emotional and spiritual transcendence. Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, Tharp and later masters produced works that can carry over into other companies, but can you imagine Blues Suite or Revelations performed elsewhere? That’s because they can only be effective when presented in the intense acrobatic style that defines the Ailey company.

Jacqueline Green and company members in Robert Battle's No Longer Silent. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Jacqueline Green and company members in Robert Battle’s No Longer Silent. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

This season Robert Battle, the new artistic director, created his first new piece for the company: Awakening, to a clamorous score by John Mackey. A lot of people in loose white schmattes run around and around the stage, sometimes in circles, sometimes in straight lines; sometimes they clump in anxious groups. One of them is a very tall man—either Jamar Roberts or Jeroboam Bozeman—who turns out to be a kind of Chosen One: we’re back to the Rite of Spring. The whole thing is over-extended and derivative, unlike No Longer Silent, an earlier work of Battle’s, new to the company, set to a score by Erwin Schulhoff, a talented composer who died in the camps. Although this earlier piece, with its mechanized brutality and uncompromising rigor, comes close to being agitprop, it’s a welcome relief from the usual Ailey sexy posturings. It’s strong in its own right, and perhaps a sign that Battle may yet give his company a reinvigorated repertory.

Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in Ronald K. Brown's Open Door. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in Ronald K. Brown’s Open Door. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Ronald K. Brown’s Grace—the great success of the company’s recent years—was back, looking a little weary and on auto-pilot. His new piece, Open Door, didn’t take us far beyond it. The Cuban jazz score is fun, the costumes pleasing, and it gave us a happy opportunity to look once more upon the wonderful Matthew Rushing, now appearing as a guest artist, and partnering, as so often before, the gorgeous Linda Celeste Sims. But what they and the eight dancers supporting them were asked to do was unremarkable—more a colorful extended exercise than material of note.

Presumably the company thought that getting the hotshot choreographer Kyle Abraham’s name on the program was a coup, and so we had Untitled America: First Movement, apparently the start of a much more substantial work. What’s to follow can hardly be less substantial than this fragment, in which three women do nothing memorable over the course of four or five minutes. Has the Kyle Abraham bubble already burst?

The company also presented its second Paul Taylor work, Piazzolla Caldera, part of a brave attempt to expand the repertory with classics by this major choreographer. (A few years ago it gave us Arden Court.) Like all Taylor pieces, Piazzolla is brilliantly constructed and crafted, but somehow it doesn’t look quite right here—it was closer in execution to Blues Suite than to Paul Taylor, though it was capably staged and enthusiastically performed. The Ailey dancers don’t move easily outside their natural range.

Paul Taylor's Piazzolla Caldera, Linda Celeste Sims, center. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera, Linda Celeste Sims, center. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

The overall Ailey problem isn’t going to be solved by borrowings even on the highest level; it’s going to have to be solved from within in order to do justice to its fervent audience and exemplary dancers. And what dancers they are! All of them deserve to be named, but I’ll restrict myself to those who caught my eye again and again during the season: Daniel Harder, Sarah Daley, Rachel McLaren, Michael Jackson, Jr., Michael Francis McBride, Belen Pereyra. Apologies to all the other worthies.

Alvin Ailey’s Superb Dancers … And Their Less Than Superb Repertory