The Kimmel Center’s commitment to bringing the best of New York City to Philadelphia continues with the addition of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the 2016-17 season. Though this famed African-American dance company has been a fixture since 1958, its work remains more relevant than ever.
The first piece of the evening, Exodus, choreographed by Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris, was an unapologetic examination of race relations in America. It began with a sea of bodies bathed in crisscrossed light (this striking design by James Clotfelter); a woman kneeling over a lifeless figure, silently weeping; and a man slowly reaching for her as he wades through the destruction. It was a confrontational opening, set to a soundtrack of heaving sighs, wails, and a jarring final gunshot.
Then the bodies slowly rose.
After a slow build, the piece burst into life. Harris’s hip-hop choreography was fluid and wild, a combination of fast footwork and controlled undulation. The Alvin Ailey dancers displayed mesmerizing athleticism and ease of movement, making Harris’s choreography look effortless. Music by Raphael Xavier and Ost & Kjex was a hypnotic mix of spoken-word poetry, thumping house tunes, and gospel music.
By the end of Exodus, the dancers had transitioned from their street clothes into white tunics and pants. The group was led by one man (mighty Jamar Roberts), echoing the Old Testament exodus from Egypt. They pushed toward a light, fighting an unseen force that shoved them back. Another man stepped forward when a gunshot sounded; he collapsed into the leader’s arms. Yet, with an easy lift, their fallen comrade stood back up. They remained fixed, resolute.
A new beginning
Awakening (2016) is Robert Battle’s first piece since being appointed Ailey’s artistic director. Unsurprisingly, it features one man singled out for leadership. Sequences of the company belly-crawling across the floor to form tight huddles, skittering off, and then merging together again were perplexing but tantalizing.
Battle likens Awakening to the tale told in Nijinsky’s choreography for Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, wherein a virgin is chosen to sacrifice herself by dancing herself to death. John Mackey’s dissonant and provocative music upheld the comparison to Rite, creating an ominous atmosphere through brash oboes and tittering flutes that was intriguing and unsettling. Al Crawford’s lighting added texture to the otherwise simple design, with a wall of small lights bringing surprising flash and starlight.
The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain provided a moment of calm. (Some might be familiar with Wheeldon’s lyrical offering from a 2013 viral video created by the New York City Ballet to commemorate 9/11.) Arvo Pärt’s tranquil piano and cello duet, “Spiegel im Spiegel,” played as two dancers sway to the music. However, its initial simplicity was deceptive. The control needed to pull off melting backbends, complex lifts, and standing arabesques is a challenge. Dancers Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims performed with exceptional grace.
An old favorite
Revelations is the piece that brought Ailey and company fame in 1960, and a permanent endowment by Ailey supporters Barbara and Donald L. Jonas ensures that Revelations is performed in perpetuity; its choreography is that dynamic. Revelations is a celebration of faith and the triumph of the African-American spirit, complete with soulful hymns, gospel music, and eclectic choreography that revolutionized modern dance. The trio of men in “Sinner Man” (Samuel Lee Roberts, Sean Aaron Carmon, Chalva Monteiro) are likely some of the hardest-working dancers in the business; once you see them move from a low crouch into a soaring herkie jump, you understand.
Ves Harper’s décor and costumes melded with the musical and choreographic mood, from the neutral shifts of “I Been ‘Buked’” to crisp white baptismal outfits for “Wade in the Water.” Barbara Forbes’s redesign of the costumes for “Rocka My Soul” was a fun update, making the women look like a troupe of fanning buttercups.