Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
The world is different since Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater last visited Philadelphia in March 2019, yet, paradoxically, much remains the same. After braving light snow, mask-wearing patrons showed ID and proof of Covid-19 vaccination, saw ushers circulating with “MASK UP” signs, and heard a recording about the Kimmel Cultural Campus's commitments to safety, diversity, and inclusion. This new normal for live performance paired with a dance more than 40 years old that still feels remarkably fresh and relevant. Alvin Ailey’s celebrated masterwork Revelations (1960) once again closed the program, but the events since summer 2020 cast it in a different light.
The first and second acts celebrated the 10th anniversary of artistic director Robert Battle, consisting of works choreographed between 1999 and 2021. Battle is the company’s third leader, personally selected as successor to Judith Jamison, the Philadelphia-born dancer and choreographer who inspired Ailey, performed his work, and took over the company at his request in 1989, the year he died.
In this performance, seven works demonstrated Battle’s choreographic range, which draws from and builds upon Ailey’s movement vocabulary, thematic touchstones, and groundbreaking combination of African American cultural experiences with modern dance. Several of Battle’s dances featured performers turning with their arms held like goalposts, an image straight out of Revelations.
Reflection, expression, and fun
Pieces like Mass (2004) and the solos In/Side (2008) and Takademe (1999) echoed the simultaneously reflective and expressive qualities of Ailey’s style. Meanwhile, Ella (2008) and For Four (2021) heightened the joy that infuses some of Ailey’s choreography to new levels of verve and fun. Throughout, the choreography and staging provided vehicles for dancers’ breathtaking strength and grace.
Burke Wilmore’s lighting design was a highlight, particularly in Mass, which began with light from above the stage, as if sun poured in from a skylight. The warm light played off Fritz Masten’s costumes, drawing even more color from the multicolored, flowing robes. Dancers resembled a church choir as they moved in groups with hands clasped by their chests. Often strikingly beautiful, the formations evoked the moving tableaux in the choreography of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. Dancers gathered in a group stage left, then peeled away one by one with circling arms. The pace of John Mackey’s original music picked up, and the bodies on stage became a kinetic mass writhing to the beat of the drums, cymbals, and marimba.
Individual dancers shine
While Battle’s group dances have more nuance and visual appeal than the program’s solos, duets, and quartets, these conveyed his skill in translating music into movement in ways that elevate both beyond the sum of their parts. They also offered individual dancers the chance to shine.
Yannick Lebrun turned with both speed and precision in In/Side, set to Nina Simone’s haunting version of “Wild Is the Wind.” His elegant lateral shoulder rolls and crouched, spider-like side steps seemed effortless. Ghrai DeVore-Stokes and Brandon Michael Woolridge brought energetic vibrance to their solos Ella and Takademe. DeVore-Stokes performed a physical interpretation of music recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, her body reflecting the inventive magnetism of the jazz vocalist’s scat singing.
Takademe took a similar approach to Sheila Chandra’s layered acapella vocals, pairing them with Woolridge’s graceful, controlled jumps and the whole-body movements that mirrored the sound of breathing. Unfold and the excerpt from Love Stories featured impressive lifts and balances, as well as gravity-defying deep backbends. Battle’s occasional use of gestures like finger pointing, kiss blowing, and hair flipping tended to be less diverting than distracting, especially in For Four. The costuming hit a similar off note with Ella’s swinging, sequined tuxedo tails, which did not enhance the music and dancing.
After the second intermission, the company performed Revelations, Ailey’s legendary celebration of African American history, culture, faith, and resilience. Revelations remains powerfully moving and sensually arresting thanks to Ailey’s vision, costumes and décor by Ves Harper, and a score consisting of fragments of gospel, spirituals, and blues. It also resonates in new ways in light of increased attention to racism and violence against Black people during the past year and a half. As enjoyable as the first two acts were, I anticipated Revelations all night. It astounded me again, thanks in part to the dancers’ palpable joy in sharing this work they must have performed countless times.
Revelations consists of three parts that take viewers on a journey through trials, redemption, and rejoicing. The first contains elements of religion and ritual. Dancers’ bent arms suggest angel wings, and their slow pliés and upraised, clasped hands evoke prayer. Sarah Daley-Perdomo and Jermaine Terry’s expert lifts and balances in the “Fix Me, Jesus” duet conveyed the intimate dance between believers and their faith as well as between romantic partners.
A blue backdrop and white-clad dancers signal the transition into the joyous beauty of “Take Me to the Water.” Staging elements contribute to the illusion of being in or underwater, such as a fabric-draped parasol undulating like a jellyfish. In “I Wanna Be Ready,” Vernard J. Gilmore’s mighty strength helped him portray a person whose movement seemed guided, if not controlled, by an invisible, divine hand. Revelations moves on to the iconic image of women fanning themselves under a blazing sun before drawing to a close with the rousing “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
Drawing a crowd more diverse than most dance audiences, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater can still nourish battered souls with beauty and inspiration. In a better world, Revelations would be presented annually across the country, like a more meaningful take on seasonal programming. For now, Battle’s artistic direction, the company’s repertoire, and virtuoso dancing carry Ailey’s legacy into the 21st century.
What, When, Where
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 2022 national tour. Choreography by Robert Battle and Alvin Ailey. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by the Kimmel Cultural Campus. January 28-30, 2022, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org or alvinailey.org.
Masks and proof of Covid vaccination are required at the Kimmel. Patrons over 18 must show a photo ID. Food and drink are not permitted inside the theater.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.