Black Genius

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

At the Arlington Theatre, Tuesday, March 7.

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Alvin Ailey’s choreography — passionate, reverent, and
simple — pays homage to the African-American culture of his Texas
childhood; it is steeped in joyous Christian faith and the human
instinct for celebration, even in times of suffering. It’s
remarkable that a work like Ailey’s “Revelations,” choreographed in
1960, still has life in it, yet it does. So much life, in fact,
that last Tuesday’s program came out lopsided: Nothing preceding
the signature piece could do it justice.

These are transcendent dancers. The Olympians of the dance
world, their bodies are finely tuned instruments of incomparable
finesse and articulation. Match that with the exuberance they
channel, and the result is sublime — as long as the choreography
delivers the goods. The rippling, shimmying, African dance- and
hip-hop-infused “Love Stories” captured that exuberance, but failed
to rein it in. The work of three choreographers vied for stage time
in this raucous street party, which captured the Ailey spirit, but
lacked a unifying structure.

“Acceptance in Surrender” struck closer to the mark. Trembling
and broken, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood was as weightless as an empty
husk as she writhed alone in the dust motes of Al Crawford’s
luscious light design. When three men like fallen angels glided
from the blackness upstage, their muscularity heightened her
delicacy, then absorbed it. Tortured angularity and imbalance gave
way to lyrical unison patterns and partnering that ebbed and flowed
as inevitably as tides.

The austerity of “Surrender, Solo” — a trio by Hans van Manen,
resident choreographer for Nederlands Dans Theater — was as
ill-fitting on the Ailey dancers as the oversized purple T-shirts
hiding their bodies. Ailey dancers may represent the pinnacle of
achievement, but their strength is not in the linear, clever vein
of NDT — it’s something warmer and more physical. The dancers
captured the comic timing and racing footwork of “Solo,” but their
talent was muffled by choreography this cute and efficiently

“Revelations” roused the audience to spontaneous applause. The
curtain came up on the opening image of outstretched hands and
upturned faces. Bathed in sepia tones and washed in the baptismal
font of Southern gospel, Ailey’s signature work was as stunning and
humbling as ever. Bodies became conduits for ecstatic awakening, a
call to the primal joy of life even through suffering and sorrow.
It’s 46 years on, and these dancers are dancing it like they were
just born again. “Revelations” remains the real thing; finding new
work that can stand alongside it and live up to the legacy is the
real challenge.


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