Robert Battle celebrated 10 years at the helm of American dance staple Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this year, and with it the assembly of yet another incredible program. The anniversary repertory began with Aszure Barton’s BUSK, followed by Battle’s Ella and excerpts from Love Stories, and of course closed with Revelations.
I’ve seen BUSK many times — it’s near and dear to my college years — but I was not nearly prepared enough for the energized excellence the soloists brought to the stage. Barton’s work is notoriously complicated, this one in particular: its count structure is evasive, and Barton herself is particularly tuned into the nuances. Stager Jonathan Alsberry, by all accounts, has developed something like memory rhymes and mnemonic devices to help dancers remember the details.
But if this cast ever struggled with the timing, you would never know. They were so clean that they could fully immerse in the fantastical world of BUSK, an almost modern operatic realm swimming with characters, with smooth technique and overwhelming lines. Their performances revealed no trace of counting the music in their heads, only of complex beings finding their way through the callous city. Barton’s movement has a gorgeously sharp flow to it; Chalvar Monteiro brought even more punctuation and extension to his opening solo. He stretched the choreography to the ends of the music, then switched gears with a delightfully surprising agility. His leg lines were flawlessly shaped, his grooves deep in the ground, his gestures pristinely organized.
James Gilmer brought his own mood to the next solo, a brooding strength with such beautiful darkness that drew every molecule of my attention. He embodied the push and pull of Barton’s steps with such thoughtful deliberation, never missing his mark. An ensemble section swept the floor clean as though it were my palette. Then Jacquelin Harris took the stage, and the entire audience leaned forward in their seats. Harris was every bit of electric onstage, every count she moved more enthralling than the last. Her attention to detail was flawless, but her command of the music superhuman. And the last set of tuck jumps from the ensemble were affecting as ever, but I was still out of breath from her knockout solo minutes before.
I’ve seen Ailey in many works not choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself: Hope Boykin’s work, Kyle Abraham’s, even Battle’s. But I have never seen them morph the way this particular cast did, finding the style outside of their usual rep and just becoming it. They found the work in such a way that each individual’s personality was somehow more exposed, in all their beauty.
Battle’s Ella was next, a duet I’ve seen before on two male dancers, but this time Jacquelin Harris took her place next to Patrick Coker. I can only describe this duet as a marathon in four minutes. It assigns a movement to every single syllable that comes from Fitzgerald’s majestic scatting and singing. And here’s where I think Battle’s choreography really outpaces his contemporaries: he transitions between social/disaporic vocabulary and classical/modern/European steps without even letting you think twice about it. It all flows with such confidence, no matter how difficult the steps are. And they are difficult: the knee work in this piece alone is enough to call it magic. They were somehow down and back up again before you could blink, not to mention the series of second split jumps that closed out this physical feat. Coker and Harris ran the marathon without a blip, and made the entire house want to get onstage with them.
Love Stories took the quintessential Stevie Wonder Fingertips recording to an entirely new level of unabashed joy, a full ensemble affair with some lovely quirky moments in the choreography. It was expertly placed in the program: a moment of release between incredibly demanding and complicated sequences. If you were lucky enough, you were sitting close enough to catch the glint in dancers’ eyes as they danced past each other, sharing that special moment of stage adrenaline. Ashley Kaylynn Green stood out in moments of fearlessness, captivating among a group of ten dancers.
After intermission, when she took her place for Revelations in Hope Boykin’s old spot (the very front for I Been ‘Buked), it felt like a true indication of a new era for Ailey. Revelations is the one choreographic ‘calling card,’ as Battle calls it, that really never gets tired. It surpassed classic and became iconic many years ago, and it is just as poignant and joyful now as it was at its 1958 debut. Every word there is to write has been written about this work, and I’ll spare you the details and just tell you to watch it online (or better yet, see it live in any Ailey program).
This night felt evident of a new generation of Ailey dancers, ones that hold both the institutional memory and the future of the company — a future that Battle stewarded himself. He’s led them into the current contemporary conversation, but also kept the undeniable history that makes Ailey who they are, and that’s indispensable.
To learn more about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, please visit their website.
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Written by Celine Kiner for LA Dance Chronicle.
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Featured image: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Aszure Barton’s Busk – Photo: ©Paul Kolnik