Brooklyn Bonds: Alvin Ailey’s Return to BAM

While the programs at the Company's Brooklyn performances offered very few surprises, the profound beauty and skill that AAADT brings is always worth seeing.

For weeks leading up to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performance run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I kept seeing a quote from Zadie Smith, writing for The New York Times: “Nothing prepares you for the totality of Alvin Ailey: the aural, visual, physical, spiritual beauty.” Well said, but also a bit ominous when read in repetition. I found myself wondering… Was I prepared? Was anyone truly prepared for such beauty in times like these?

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A group of dancers on stage reaches for the sky
‘Are You in Your Feelings?’ by choreographer Kyle Abraham. Photo by ©Paul Kolnik

The Company made its welcome return to BAM last week for the first time since 2010 with two distinct programs: Brooklyn Bonds: Modern masters with Brooklyn connections featuring recent and rarely performed works by Kyle Abraham, Ronald K. Brown, and Twyla Tharp, and All Ailey: Revered classics by Alvin Ailey.

BAM holds a special place in the Company’s history as it was on that very stage in 1956 that Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) made his debut as a dancer. Ailey is not a native New Yorker, though. He was born in Texas and then, after a turbulent childhood spent in the Depression-era segregated South, moved with his mother to Los Angeles. As a teenager, he tried tap dance, gymnastics and Dunham Technique. None of these styles stuck, though you can see glimpses of them in his work. But then he fell in love with modern dance through Lester Horton’s classes, which he took at one of the country’s first racially integrated dance studios on Melrose Avenue. He later joined Horton’s company, then moved to New York to further his performance career, which brings us back to BAM in 1956.

In 1958, Ailey formed his own company in hopes of “enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience”, and then went on to change American modern dance forever. But that’s another conversation for another time. Just know this: AAADT, now under the leadership of artistic director Robert Battle, remains one of the most vital and respected dance companies in the world.

If you’ve never seen Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations (1960), you must. Stop reading this, and go. It’s on Program B: All Ailey, along with classics Night Creature (1975), Cry (1971), and Survivors (1986). But if you’re already familiar with these works, or want to experience something more contemporary, check out Program A.

Program A: Brooklyn Bonds opened with the premiere of a new production of Ronald K. Brown’s Dancing Spirit (2009), a tribute to the great Judith Jamison. Jamison joined the Company in 1965, danced with them for fifteen years, left to create her own company, then returned in 1989 to succeed Ailey as his handpicked artistic director for the next twenty-one years. She recently celebrated her 80th birthday.

‘Dancing Spirit’ by choreographer Ronald K. Brown. Photo by ©Paul Kolnik

Brown has long admired Ailey’s work and Jamison’s influence on dance and performance. In 1985, the Brooklyn-based choreographer founded EVIDENCE, A Dance Company which integrates traditional African dance with contemporary choreography. When Jamison was artistic director of AAADT, she invited Brown to create several works for the Company, which ultimately changed the course of his career.

When first creating Dancing Spirit (also the name of Jamison’s 1993 autobiography), Brown made a list of words that describe Jamison to use as inspiration. It begins: “generous, elegant, royal, servant, Yemaya, ocean-full, bright sun, purple stars, direct line, love from every pore, light from the fingertips to the top of the head…” You can see these phrases weave their way into the piece, especially in Constance Stamatiou’s ocean-full performance, Ashley Kaylynn Green’s bright sun/purple stars fieriness and Yannick Lebrun’s flawless direct-line-ness.

The movement is an exuberant mix of styles from Cuba, Brazil and the United States. The music is also a fusion: Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead and War. Admittedly, the instrumental version of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” feels out of place. Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya’s elegant costumes are appropriately reminiscent of Jamison’s dress in Cry (1971), the solo Ailey created for her (also on Program B), and Clifton Taylor’s lighting transforms the stage into a moonlit night. Dancing Spirit is a perfect showcase for the Company’s strengths—virtuosic technique, fierce grace and a bottomless supply of soul.

Next was Twyla Tharp’s Roy’s Joys (1997), which the Company woke from its 25-year sleep for a premier in the fall of 2022. Tharp, superhumanly prolific, has created more than 160 works for the stage, film, TV, and Broadway and even a few ice-skating routines. Her choreography is known for its ever-changing swirl of styles and its ability to not take itself too seriously. This is the third piece from Tharp’s repertory that the Company has taken on.

Roy’s Joys taps into the lively bop and swing of American jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge’s album French Cooking, recorded in Paris in 1951. Though the dance is meticulously structured, with complicated formations and movement patterns, is has an air of breeziness about it. A nonchalant coolness. It’s showy and sometimes downright silly. The Company is many wonderful things, but silly is not one of them. Some of the slapstick humor falls flat, but it’s a delight to see the dancers spread their witty-wings. Highlights included Jacquelin Harris diving into a few daredevil lifts with Solomon Dumas and James Gilmer that had the audience holding their collective breath, as well as Miranda Quinn’s crisp goofiness and charming grin.

‘Roy’s Joys’ by choreographer Twyla Tharp. Photo by ©Paul Kolnik

Closing out the evening was Kyle Abraham’s Are You in Your Feelings? (2022), the youngest piece in the program both in conception and tone. Abraham, also the youngest choreographer on the bill, has been in demand lately, as well as being busy with his own company, A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham.

Feelings premiered at the Company’s annual New York City Center season in December to great critical acclaim. The music is a party-starting compilation of R&B, soul and hip hop, and Dan Scully’s lighting creates a youthful, keep-the-party-going atmosphere.

The all-female dance set to Erykah Badu’s “I’ll Call U Back” was a crowd favorite. Sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than a good, clean unison section. Ashley Kaylynn Green was another bright spot. Her wide-open presence and hip-hop edge are a perfect match for Abraham’s choreography. The duets between Green and Chalvar Monteiro provided a sincere and satisfying narrative arc for the audience to hold on to.

Ailey once famously said, “Dance comes from the people and should always be delivered back to the people.” While Dancing Spirit is a stunning tribute, and Roy’s Joys is a delightful step outside the Company’s comfort zone, Feelings accomplishes this task perhaps best of all. The dancers seem most themselves there. Also, its themes of romantic and platonic connection and celebration of contemporary Black culture feel like exactly what we all need right now.

While the programs offered no groundbreaking world premieres or surprises, the profound beauty and skill that AAADT brings is always worth seeing. Both Dancing Spirit and Feelings received a standing ovation. Dance, and the people—prepared or not—delivered.

Brooklyn Bonds: Alvin Ailey’s Return to BAM