Despite a few opening night jitters, the professional sheen radiating out of the Ailey/Fordham BFA autumn concert made one forget that these performers are still students. Each year, approximately 25 dancers are selected from hundreds of auditioning aspirants to form the school’s incoming freshman class. Led by The Ailey School’s Co-Directors - Tracy Inman and Melanie Person - these talented dancers go through rigourous dance training in tandem with their demanding scholastic studies. The hope is to go on to join The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre or another leading dance company, though with everything that they experience, these students are just as likely to become presidents or CEOs.
Seventeen young women from the newly minted class kicked things off with Becky Brown's THE SPACE WHERE YOU USED TO BE. This dance of evolving variations sent scores of bodies swarming amongst one another as if they were tumultuous waves. Deploying a simple prelude, Brown lured the audience into a false sense of serenity until her ever-ascendant movement progressions filled the arena with a whirlpool of motion. Present throughout was a solid rapport between the dancers, as if they were a crew of seasoned seafarers surfing the storm. This was never more obvious than when a Hanya Holm inspired surge of bodies charged towards the wings, materializing into a lifeline along the way, and held one solitary dancer suspended at the apex. Thrilling.
That trend continued with the sophomore class in Robert Battle‘s BATTLEFIELD. Years ago, after taking my first class with Battle, I called his style “crazy demon dancing”. That description still holds true. A solid craftsman, Battle delights in clever rhythmic patterning that challenges a performer's stamina while covertly exposing the audience to potent symbols and sudden blips of humour. My concert guest - a program master from Google - exclaimed, "He just rendered a code out of flesh and blood!" Though it shares music and movement vocabulary with THE HUNT, BATTLEFIELD uncoils its savage mosh pit theme to include a war campaign, invasion, and triumphant march.
Here, the dancers are like warrior-priests ratcheting-up their minions before unleashing their fury upon the world. This was especially true of Asia Bonilla and Meagan King, who transcended the head-banging intensity with telling glances that communicated they were the true power behind this game of thrones.
In Carla Maxwell's restaged suite from Jose Limón's PSALM - set by Kathryn Alter - Mariah Gravelin took the stage and held focus even when she was not the center. Watching the senior class perform Limón's technique was fascinating because it runs counter to what one thinks of Ailey dancers. Defying expectations, they assimilated the appropriate purity and rhythmic buoyancy with aplomb. Gravelin went beyond approximation; offering her soul to the world, she ascended to the point that one could imagine her joining the Limón Company tomorrow.
Stepping forward from the rhythmic exertions of Nijawwon Matthews' CYCLES, sophomore class member Ashley Simpson dispatched her every solo turn with disarming ease. Balance in a 200 degree penché for eight counts and then relevé into high attitude posé? Done as if she were blessed with Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell’s perfection. The only question remaining is, “How good are her dramatic chops?” Time will tell.
In Virginie Mécène's GUNAIKES, one saw the drama even as it remained unfulfilled. GUNAIKES evokes the beauty and ferocious strength of women in a configuration of sultry drag walks, spirals, held strikes, high releases, and soaring leaps. It is quite a dance. The ladies of the junior class have yet to master the dramatic impulse behind its steps, instead they move like novitiates, unaware of the inner goddess that GUNAIKES evokes. Even then, it was interesting to observe them striving towards their potential. One hopes the ballet stays in their repertoire to see who manages to conquer its complexities.
NIGHT CREATURE’s jazzy collection of cool wit and sultry smirks is a dazzling reminder that Alvin Ailey was a Broadway-scale entertainer. Though there was more emphatic up to the senior class’ bounce than down - and stiffer figure-eight hips than one would have liked - these dancers were absolutely charming. None more so than the perfectly cast Alisha Peek. In contrast to her grinning classmates, Peek held the audience rapt with blazing eyes, more impressive than impressed until the dashing Marcel Wilson sidled up beside her. Even then, she was bemused, not taken.
I've always felt that NIGHT CREATURE was about Fosse restraint over sock-em-to-the-rafters punch. Duke Ellington composed the eponymous suite "to try to make the symphony swing" while telling “a rather simple story in fairly simple language.” Peek had this figured out from count one: keep the excitement bubbling inside, make the audience come to you. She unleashed this sassy exuberance during an extended send-off to her gang of fabulous pals. Finally alone, she stood smoldering as the lights faded to black. When they came back up for bows I was shocked to see that she had disappeared like a creature of the night. Magical.
This crop of Ailey/Fordham BFA dancers behaves like a professional company already. One looks forward to witnessing how much further their stars will rise in the Spring. For more information about The Ailey School, visit: theaileyschool.edu