by Susan Kepecs
Tuesday night’s concert by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was like a litmus test to see whether twentieth century American modern dance has a future a decade-plus into the twenty-first. How to approach the legacy of this artform now that its master choreographers are gone has been a matter of great debate. Martha Graham’s company plies revived works in the name of teaching a new generation some dance history. A concert of restored works by multimedia pioneer Alwin Nikolais, the Ririe-Woodbury Nikolais Dance Project, seen at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2007, was nostalgic but weary. And Merce Cunningham’s company took its final bows at New York’s Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s eve, 2011. Only the Ailey company, among the great pioneers, has moved on under new directorship and with a substantial repertory of works by choreographers who’ve emerged since the master’s passing. Last fall, Robert Battle – never an Ailey dancer, but a frequent company collaborator over the years – took the reins from Judith Jameison, who succeeded Ailey shortly before his death in 1989. Tuesday night was the first opportunity I’ve had to see the company under Battle’s artistic direction.
But the program was a mixed bag, dotted with disappointments. The first piece, “Streams,” a minor but long Ailey piece from 1970 – a lushly lit leotard work with an electronic score and the sleekly angular vocabulary that was a hallmark of modern dance in that decade (attitudes on supporting legs with bent knees, leg extensions in second position, leaps that land in falls) – was an odd selection. It lacks entirely the powerful African-American identity of Ailey’s major works like “Revelations” (1960), “The River” (1970, a collaboration with Duke Ellington), or “Cry” (1971), the dance that made Judith Jameison a star. In general “Streams” looked good. But given the fabled strength of Ailey dancers, the occasional shaky standing legs supporting the arabesques on which much of the piece was built constituted a subtle flaw that could have been avoided with an extra touch of turnout.
Also on the bill were two pieces by Battle, neither of which I loved, and neither of which I’d seen before though both were made for the Ailey company in the ‘90s, under Jameison’s direction. “Takedeme” (1999) featured soloist Megan Jakel in a red top and fringed pants, doing what we used to call “sound theory” in Alwin Nikolais’ improv class in the 1960s. Jakel’s rapid-fire jumps and poses, framed in a spotlight circle, looked precisely the way the soundtrack – Sheila Chandra’s “Speaking in Tongues II” – sounds. The Chandra piece lends itself perfectly to this kind of choreography; Li Chiao Ping uses it to similar effect in her wacky holiday show, The Knotcracker.
Of Battle’s works I preferred “The Hunt” (2001), a tribal, drum-driven dance for six men in long, black split skirts lined in red satin that flared, flamelike, as the performers lept or spun, often in unison. Heavily spiked with belly-to-belly jumps (backs arched, knees bent), flat-footed up-and-down jumps like little levitations, and wrenching upper torso contractions, the piece, with its spirit posession finale of frenzied yelling, jumping and falling, was the epitome of what New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella calls “muscle ballet.”
The tensions and jazzlike structure of “Urban Folk Dance,” a 1990 rejection / attraction jitterbug for two couples by the late Ulysses Dove, were captivating. It's worth noting that Dove studied at UW-Milwaukee in the late ‘60s with the Kirov’s Xenia Chlistwa (with whom more than a few of Tuesday night’s audience members also studied, either there or in Madison) before joining the Ailey company in 1973. Dove’s piece made stark contrast with “Journey,” a soft woman-spirit solo choregraphed by another late Ailey dancer, Joyce Trisler, and performed Tuesday night by Sarah Daley, one of the youngest dancers in the current company.
But the soulful “Revelations” remains by far this company’s piece de resistance. A dance-literate friend who accompanied me to the concert had never seen the master’s choreographic crown jewel; surprisingly, at least to me, she found it dated and ordinary. I’ve seen “Revelations,” an extremely painterly work loosely based on the choreographer’s own African-American childhood in Texas in the 1930s, many times, and I always find it lush and beautiful. For me, the experience is akin to returning to the Uffizi for the Boticellis – an enriching act that’s worth repeat visits over the years. Still, like the Boticellis, “Revelations” is now a museum piece. American modern dance, I’m afraid, is heading into history.