A REVIEW: Company puts heart, soul, strength behind Ailey’s vision

Apr. 25, 2014 @ 06:12 PM

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater took the audience to the river and elsewhere in the Wednesday program at UNC’s Memorial Hall. The program showcased both Ailey’s work and dances by gifted contemporary American modern dance choreographers. This company performed everything with their usual heart, soul, physical strength and impeccable technique.           

Ronald K. Brown’s “Four Corners” opens the program.  Spirituality, mystery and ritual pervades this work. It incorporates West African and modern dance moves. Dancers undulate their bodies in fluid, “no bones” motions even when they bend forward, low to the earth, in the African tradition. They also whip their arms around to send their bodies in a whirlwind motion that sweeps across the stage.

Brown creates a sense of ritual, in part, with his use of circles and in his unusual square patterns as dancers anchor four corners. Life’s troubles and both comfort and protection are suggested by movements and music that includes Carl Hancock Rux’s song, “Lamentations,” and Yacoub’s lullaby. At one point, a woman emerges from the wings to embrace a man, standing alone, shoulders hunched over. She rocks him as a mother would a child.

The company makes Bill T. Jones’ challenging “D-Man in the Waters” look effortless. To Felix Mendelssohn’s exuberant “Octet for Strings,” dancers slide on their stomachs and flutter their legs. They embody a sense of community as they help each other keep going. They prop up leaning dancers to keep them from falling. A limp, male dancer, draped over the back of another, is carried offstage. In an especially poignant moment, several male dancers swagger offstage in a show of bravado despite the worrisome, unexplained frailties of some group members.

This first section of Jones’ work just hints at what is to come in this 1989 work, which responds to the AIDS epidemic that claimed the lives of friends and colleagues. The Ailey company also currently grieves the loss of longtime production team members E.J. Corrigan and Calvin Hunt, who died suddenly earlier this spring while on tour with the company in California. The performances Tuesday and Wednesday were dedicated to their memory, according to program notes.

The performance of “D-Man” leaves the audience wanting more – especially those who have seen the entire work. Here’s hoping the Ailey company performs Jones’ entire, 35-minute masterpiece some day – soon.

In Robert Battle’s solo, “In/Side,” Ailey dancer Samuel Lee Roberts delivers a tour-de-force performance as he embodies a tortured soul in every inch of his tall, muscular frame. In fact, his physique makes his anguish more compelling as it communicates that even a big, strong man can be brought down by his inner demons. To Nina Simone’s rendition of “Wild is the Wind,” Roberts contorts his body to the point that he resembles a crumpled heap instead of a human being. He takes mincing steps, stopping repeatedly to look over his shoulder as though fearful of being pursued. He whips his twisted body though the air. Then he suddenly stops, turns his back to the audience and walks into the darkness. Sure, he now looks normal, but we know that it’s only a matter of time before his demons possess him again.

The program ends, as always, with Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece, “Revelations.” By the finale “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of  Abraham” section, the audience is already converted, thanks to Ailey’s vision and the dancers’ heartfelt, engaging performances. In it, dancers go on a spiritual journey from pilgrims of sorrow to salvation. Evocative images remain in memory long after seeing a performance.

“Wade in the Water” especially creates a spell as ribbons of cloth in shades of blue ripple across the stage. Motes of blue-dappled light play on the women’s long, white dresses and on an umbrella draped with white, filmy fabric. This work also showcases dancers’ strength and flexibility.  In a gravity-defying feat, a female dancer bends way back as she extends her leg forward. In the “Rocka My Soul” section, which ends the work with a prayer-meeting scene, men squat very low to the floor and somehow manage to bend their knees and walk forward. Humans are not designed to do this but these guys make it look easy.

After a standing ovation and lots of bows, the company returns for an encore of the “Rocka My Soul” number. While music concerts usually have encores, dance rarely does. The fact that the audience’s response drew an encore testifies to this company’s strong appeal as well as their generosity.