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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

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There are few better ways to celebrate the holiday season than with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Always a visual delight, their annual occupancy of the New York City Center reveals that the company, unique above all in its spirit, versatility and astonishing athleticism, is in very good shape.

Company members are so dedicated that many come to the theater to see other cast members perform on their days off. I was lucky to have the charming Olivia Bowman, a young Ailey dancer seated next to me – well, not so young – she is 27 but looks 16. She was excited to see the performances from the house and to watch her boyfriend/dance partner, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, onstage.

The evening was devoted to the works of Ulysses Dove, perhaps the most demanding choreographer in the repertoire, whose movements are so swift, precise and gravity defying that they look almost physically impossible. Episodes, as did the other works on the program, Urban Folk Dance and Vespers, exhibited stark, staccato movements, closely tied to the music (by Robert Ruggiero, Michael Torke and Mikel Rouse, respectively) and dramatically lit by three different designers. Delivered with the precision necessary to avoid injury, there is no subtlety here, no swanlike grace but, rather, heart stopping aerial flights culminating in positions so unusual. that there is nothing ordinary or predictable. Dancers fly through the air giving literal meaning to “leap of Faith” relying on split second timing, and their partners’ ability to not only catch them but do it with confidence. No move is simple, every joint is mobilized into such angular patterns that they can each be freeze framed into carefully composed pictures. Olivia told me that in Dove’s dances couples never change – if one is injured the other does not perform – and with good reason, because they develop so much trust in each other. Olivia loves the challenge and excitement of these works, especially since her partner is also her boyfriend.

The strength required for these demanding moves is the result of what she described to me as a typical day in the life of an Ailey dancer: morning ballet class, pilattes, then a cardio workout in the gym, then several hours of daily rehearsal for the numbers of the evening, and then a pre-performance master class. She added that it was good that the company goes on hiatus each year when they are not on tour (which adds the additional element of travel to an already gruelling day) because “the body could not possibly take all that stress with time off” during which time many of the cast can be seen collecting unemployment benefits. Although it seemed shocking that this was something they had to do to survive, she added that she was “grateful to be able to collect”. Too bad they aren’t paid annually.

Although Episodes and Vespers had no cohesive narrative they were never dull. In contrast the emotions evoked in Urban Folk Dance, of troubled, often violent, relationships between two couples in adjacent apartments and their equally confrontational meeting, were dramatically gripping. However, it was an odd choice to have three out of the four dances on the program all by Dove. While he is always exhilarating to watch each choreographer has his/her own unique dance vocabulary and many moves because recognizable and redundant as the evening progressed.

Happily the relatively grim program was tempered by the ever popular crowd favorite, Revelations – it never gets old. Olivia confided that the cast never gets tired of doing it, buoyed by the audience response and that Artistic Director Judith Jamison demands the cast tease the audience and make them work for the inevitable encore and not just “give it away”.

Of the new works the discomfortingly abstract Armitage’s Gamelan Gardens lacked any clear narrative and meandered far too long. By happy contrast Twyla Tharp exonerated herself from her latest disastrous Broadway foray, The Times They Are A Changin’, with her exciting The Golden Section replete with stunningly executed multiple pirouettes in her signature off beat positions.

It is healthy that the company continues to include other choreographers, with hit and miss results, but the tendency toward abstract modern should be more carefully selected for an audience always hungry for the company standards.

Of course, no matter what or who, the exemplary cast always rises to the top of the material.

New York City Center, West 55th Street between 6th and 78th Avenues, 212-581-1212 or 1-877-581-1212 through Dec 31
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