Unforgiving Yet Intriguing: A Review of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The internationally-known modern dance company Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater premiered original choreography by Matthew Rushing, Hofesh Shechter and Alvin Ailey at Revelations last month at Boston's Citi Wang Theater. The three contrasting pieces played on opening night to a diverse audience of all ages and races. Although AAADT showcases Ailey's original choreography in multiple pieces, current artistic director Robert Battle premieres original works from various choreographers within the modern dance world.

Barely struck by the spotlight, Odetta Holmes' (an African-American singer) portrait hung peacefully over a dark, barren stage. Professional dancer Hope Boykin, dressed in orange, took the spotlight as she depicted the titular Odetta in Rushing's Odetta. This piece demonstrated the complexity of human relations through numerous family scenarios. The dancers executed each intricate movement clearly, sharply and genuinely.

Two of Ailey's company male dancers. Image credited to Lloyd Whitmore for use.

One of my personal favorites from Odetta was the scene called "There's a Hole in the Bucket," starring company dancers Rachael McLaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis. Although Rushing did not choreograph anything impressive or out of the expected, he used repetition and animated facial expressions to effectively enhance the dialogue between the two dancers. Song and voice narrated this piece but did not overshadow the dancers' own expressiveness. Both company members really brought the comedy to life through the simplicity of the choreography and emphasis on acting and exaggeration.

After a short intermission, the sudden roars from the soundtrack and harsh lighting grasped my attention while causing confusion at the same time. This medley of sounds and lights introduced the next piece, Uprising. Shechter, a graduate from the Jerusalem Academy for Dance and Music and an internationally respected contemporary choreographer, choreographed the impressive work. The cast of male bodies performing with above average athleticism through the rapid, cardio choreography was remarkable. Although the storyline was more abstract in its execution in comparison to Odetta, Uprising still showcased the strengths of each dancer and the physical labor of dance itself.

Of the overall piece, the lighting was my favorite element because it took this section a step further in pushing artistic boundaries. For instance, moments that reflected emphasis on the legs rather than the full or upper body were highlighted by the back lights that shined across the floor of the stage rather than directly shining above the dancers. Uprising truly depicted the intensity of the physical labor required to execute Shechter's choreography.

Revelations, Ailey's most popular repertoire piece, was presented at the end of the night as a traditional closing for AAADT's opening night in Boston. Inspired by various folk dances from numerous parts of the African diaspora, Revelations presents dances that display the tension between traditional dance versus postmodernist technique. "Pilgrims of Sorrow" (the first revelation) opens with the gospel song "I've Been Buked" and a clump formation of dancers dressed in tan/brown earthy clothing.

As the piece continues into "Take Me to the Water," Ailey's challenge between traditional and modern dance becomes more apparent. While using traditional music and incorporating traditional movements into Lester Horton's modern technique, the company was able to engage the audience in the energetic dance. The fusion of both styles of dance created a portrait of the body as geometry; shapes created by the dancers result in a unique, admirable conversation with the audience.

Alvin Ailey's company, yet again, failed to disappoint Boston this past month. The excellent complexities presented in Odetta provoked emotional connections for the audience, whether or not they could relate to the military couple in "Masters of War" or the comedic duo featured in "There's a Hole in the Bucket". Uprising challenged its audience by presenting multiple elements of production in a single piece, mainly focusing on the usage of lighting in relation to the music itself. Finally, Revelations has become a tradition at every Ailey performance. Its high energy and catchy drum beats brought the audience to their feet, the sound of their applause joining the rhythm of the dance.