Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Alvin Ailey Dance Review
My friend, S., surprised me yesterday with a free ticket to last night's opening performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre's 5-night run at the Kennedy Center. "Score!" I thought, and readily agreed.
S. is an old friend of the dance company's associate artistic director, Masazumi Chaya (who also got us the tickets), and before the show, we ate dinner with him in the performers' canteen (entered through labrynthine hallways in the bowels of the Kennedy). Chaya is a modest and charming man of indeterminate age. He recently celebrated his birthday. He's probably 50, though looks a decade younger and moves with the grace of a young dancer.
In fact, Chaya danced in the company for 15 years before becoming associate director, and he still eats like a dancer: steamed zucchini and sauteed tofu, hold the rice. I picked guiltily at a fried chicken breast. I was surprised that several dancers were also eating (and not just salad, either) given that the show was starting soon. We said our goodbyes and weaved through the crowds of men in tuxedoes and women in sequined gowns and sat in our seats on the orchestra level.
The Review: It was my first time to see the Alvin Ailey dance company, and I admit, I was dazzled. The no-holds-barred athleticism and grace of the dancers, the lyricism and inventiveness of the choreography and stark beauty of the set (decorated only with different colored lights and sometimes bolts of cloth) made the entire experience all the more powerful.
However, I found the first ("Vespers" and "Caught") and last pieces ("Revelations") of the show the strongest and most evocative. The middle and longest piece, "Love Stories," with music by Stevie Wonder, was the weakest, though probably also the most crowd-pleasing. "Vespers," which, incidentally, was re-staged by Chaya, featured a woman in a simple black dress sitting in a plain wooden chair. She danced as if she was talking to God, jumping from the chair into the air, with her arms outstretched and her face to the sky. She was soon joined by a half-dozen other women, who mirrored her swooping moves.
"I love the women in this company," S., said, leaning over to me. "They are so fierce!"
"Caught" was a visual stunner, using strobe lights to make it seem as if dancer Clifton Brown was floating in air. Gimmicky? Yes, but it worked, and it was breathtaking and dramatic. (Chaya mentioned wryly that folks with pacemakers may not be able to watch that piece in person, as it might affect their hearts.) "Love Stories," which featured the dancers in bright, "Fame"-like costumes, was a celebration of movement, and the music was interspersed with a man's (Ailey's?) voice talking about the philosophy of dance. It was fun, but a bit long, and while entertaining, seemed a bit common for the Ailey dance company.
"Revelations," the company's signature piece, created by Alvin Ailey, and set to traditional African-American gospel music, was beautiful and very moving, especially the slower pieces ("Fix me, Jesus" and "I Been 'Buked"). The crowd whooped its appreciation even before the curtain went up for the first piece in "Revelations," and they clapped their hands in some of the songs. Not something you usually hear or see in the normally-stuffy Kennedy Center. After the performance ended, this ballet enthusiast had a newfound appreciation for modern dance, especially American dance.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performs at the Kennedy Center through this Saturday. Don't miss it.