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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Grace, C# Street B-Flat Avenue, Revelations
Grace is danced in part to Duke Ellington's Come Sunday which is included in
The Best Of The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition
C# Street + B-Flat Avenue is danced to: David Murray's Picasso
More Alvin Ailey
I still remember the first time I saw Alvin Ailey
American Dance Theater. It was back in the 70s and I was a parent chaperone for one
of those fifth grade theater trips designed to introduce young people to the arts. It was
the same night I learned to do the soul-clap, no easy feat for a white chick from the
snooty Chicago suburbs.
The program ended as Ailey programs often do with the signature "Revelations." I remember the entire auditorium swaying and clapping to the finale, "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." I remember the company repeating the number after the bows as the crowd, my small son and I included, went berserk.
Flash forward a whole bunch of years to Tuesday night at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. As a critic I have seen the company many times over by now but am no less a fan. My little boy is a dot.com honcho off in Texas and I am walking with a cane but the hall is again filled with youngsters (and grownups), screaming and clapping to "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." Its nice to know that, in our fast-changing world, there are some things you still can count on. This time, I know to stay in my seat after the final bows. I am not disappointed. The smiling, sweating dancers do it again.
Since the death of its founder, in 1989, former lead dancer Judith Jamison not only has kept the company going but has polished it to a high sheen, adding works by new choreographers while honoring the original Ailey repertoire. What began in 1958, with a bunch of young African American dancers at the 92nd Street Y in New York, has evolved into an internationally respected institution, with its own school, dance camps for under-served youth in four cities and a second touring troupe that eases young performers from the classroom to the stage.
While Aileys 1970 "Revelations" has achieved the status of a classic, the opening work on the program fell way short of that mark. Ron Browns "Grace," an agitated, disjointed affair set to music of Duke Ellington, Roy Davis, Jr. and others, was an inauspicious curtain-raiser.
Brown seems to have a penchant for rapid, jerky movement and, when he sets it to mellow music like Ellingtons "Come Sunday," it feels very strange. Linda Denise Evans and the company, clad in flowing white and flaming red, did their energetic best but it was little more than a good aerobic workout, as evidenced by the perspiration pouring down the bare chests of the men. A lot of sound and fury, signifying very little.
In contrast, Jawole Willa Jo Zollars "C# Street B-Flat Avenue" was a delightful, energetic ode to music that combined the idioms of ballet, jazz dance, swing and even a little tap to fine effect. Everything, from the clever, colorful costuming to the rear screen projections worked to make this a jazzy, sexy, street smart statement, fully as abstract as "Grace" but far more exciting.
And the best came last. Just let me rave on a little more about "Revelations" - about its opening that raises the humble plie to high art; the lyrical pas de deux "Fix Me, Jesus," a poem in slow motion, spoiled only by intermittent applause from the audience acknowledging a particularly tricky move; the wonderful parasol-waving "Wade in the Water" and "I Want to Be Ready," a highly balletic study in power and stillness, masterfully performed by Jeffrey Gerodias.
And, if the prayer meeting finale is the most fun, "Sinner Man," with a male trio criss-crossing the stage in front of a background of hellfire, is the most powerful. Uri Sands, Matthew Rushing and Troy ONeil Powell were utterly wonderful and they sure put the fear of God in me.
Alvin Ailey has left us a fine legacy in this, as well as his numerous other works. He also has left us a company that just gets better over time. Go see it and dont be surprised if you find yourself singing "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" for the next couple of days. Its standard.
Berkeley, CA, April 12, 2000 Suzanne Weiss