A performance full of urgency, hope and joy

Apr. 21, 2014 @ 10:33 PM

Bill T. Jones’ “D-Man in the Waters” is the latest splash in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s continuance of the legacy its founder, Alvin Ailey.  In 1958, Ailey had formed his repertory company to perform not only his work but the dances of other gifted choreographers. The company performs Part I of Jones’ 1989 “D-work” in its Wednesday program at UNC’s Memorial Hall.

“Alvin Ailey really loved Bill T. Jones when Jones was first starting out,” Battle said in a telephone interview. In fact, Ailey had commissioned Jones’ first work, “Fever Swamp,” premiered in 1983 by the Ailey company, according to the company’s website. 
Ailey liked a wide range of dance styles, including Jones’ post-modern approach, Battle said. Now, the Ailey company will be the first major dance company to perform Jones’ “D-Man in the Waters,” he added.
He and Jones started talking about it two years ago. Even though the company is performing just the first part of “D-Man” this season, “the door is open” to eventually perform the entire work, Battle said.
“It was quite wonderful to have him [Jones] in the studio,” he added. Janet Wong, associate director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, had taught the first section of “D-Man” to the Ailey dancers. “They loved doing the work from the moment when she had the dancers sliding on their bellies. It was this liberating sense of joy in the studio,” Battle said.
In this work, dancers seem to be swimming as they backstroke, crawl and flutter-kick across the stage.  They also appear to glide as they slide on the hard floor. Jones has said that a dream of swimming had been an inspiration for “D-Man.”  In the dream, he saw people swimming and trying to survive with some swimmers trying to help others.
Jones and Wong also shared, with Ailey dancers, the fact that Jones had created this dance during a time when friends and colleagues were dying from complications of AIDS. Jones’ partner in life and dance, Arnie Zane, had died in 1988. Jones named the dance after company member Demian Acquavella, whom he called “D-Man.” Acquavella died in 1990. Alvin Ailey also died in 1989 from complications of AIDS.
The spirit of the dance embodies this urgency to survive but is also full of joy and hope, Wong has said.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Octet for Strings in E-Flat Major,” the music used for this dance, has something to do with this sense of elation. Mendelssohn was only 16 when he composed the music. “This piece was created when we were dealing with a lot of death. So, creating this work was a way of dealing with grief by finding the joy in this music this 16-year-old boy created,” Jones has said.
Since becoming the company’s third artistic director in July 2011, Battle has made a point of including in the company’s repertory great modern dance classics such as “D-Man,” and Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court.” “I love the classics … and it’s important that we realize that modern dance has a history,” Battle said.
The company also performs work by Ailey, Battle and other choreographers. “I am trying to look at work that celebrates past, present and future,” Battle said.
The company’s programs reflect this mix. Today’s program at UNC features Ailey’s 1970 “The River” and Aszure Barton’s 2013 “Lift.” Wednesday’s program spotlights Jones’ 1989 “D-Man in the Waters,” Ronald K. Brown’s 2013 “Four Corners” and Battle’s 2008 “In/Side.”
Both programs end the same way that Ailey concluded his programs – with his 1960 “Revelations.”
“It’s a masterpiece. It’s timeless.  It’s a message of hope that can overcome the worst possible atrocities, of hope over despair. The human spirit endures,” Battle said.
In 1987, after the Ailey company performed “Revelations” as the finale to its American Dance Festival performance, the audience’s standing ovation drew dancers back for an encore, the Rock-a My Soul section of the dance.
Ailey received the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement at ADF that summer. In an interview, he spoke of his mission for the company.
“We invent, but we want to be popular in the best sense of the word. We want to be able to reach out, to communicate with parents, aunts, cousins,” he said. He added that he also believed that his work has universal appeal. “They scream in Paris, too,” Ailey said.
They still do – in Paris and elsewhere where the Ailey company appears as designated American cultural ambassadors to the world.

: Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today* and Wednesday.
WHERE: UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill.
TICKETS: 919-843-3333 or wwwlcarolinaperformingarts.org
(*Today’s performance is sold out.)