There is no doubt that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of the most popular dance groups on the planet and, even more than 20 years after its founder’s death, is still in great demand. Based on that, the company also commands a high performance fee to draw in those high audience numbers. But then, Ailey audiences always leave the concert hall well satisfied.
It has also spawned a second company, known as Ailey II, which could ultimately be the way smaller communities see the Ailey legacy, most importantly through Mr. Ailey’s timeless masterpiece, “Reflections.” Such was the case when the audience recently filled Slippery Rock University’s Miller Auditorium.
Even in the hands of these young dancers, “Revelations” was an unparalleled piece of living, breathing black American history. But it didn’t touch on specific issues like slavery. Instead it showed vestiges of black America through its gospel music — the spirituality (“I Been ‘Buked,” “Fix Me Jesus”), the baptismal traditions shown during “Wade in the Water” and those southern Baptist churches a-fluttering with women’s fans.
You might call it the gospel according to Alvin because this work delivers its motivating message not only to Daniel but to the audiences who never seem to tire of “Revelations.” The main company performs it virtually every performance and it appears that Ailey II often does the same.
After having seen this piece on and off since the ’70’s (plus the DVD), it is ingrained in my memory. Of course, these young dancers didn’t have the weighty cohesiveness of the main company (albeit most of them were hired only in May), but they always did sustain the original intent and certain sections, like the urgency of “Sinner Man” for a trio of men and the energy of “Rocka My Soul,” soared on their own.
That wasn’t the only thing that lured me to the Rock, though. Ailey II also is a laboratory for emerging choreographers and the program included works by Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham and New Yorker Sidra Bell, both of whom were tapped for the Kelly-Strayhorn’s Next Stage Artist Residency Program and presented new pieces at the theater in East Liberty this year.
Sidra created “Valse” for Ailey II. Given the fact that the dancers were dressed in black fantastical costumes, it appeared that she took her inspiration from Maurice Ravel’s dark-edged “La Valse,” which was originally inspired by World War II.
Dennis Bell’s (no relation, I presume) original score couldn’t be considered a traditional waltz, so the idea had to come from the dance itself, where the dancers wove in and out in angular movments. Although Sidra no doubt has a skillful touch, this piece was designed for the Ailey style, more to please the audience and/or company. And while the movement was intriguing, i don’t think that Sidra kept true to herself.
Kyle produced “The Corner,” completed just this year and conceived in the streetwise mold that he has established. Unlike the other works he has composed, “The Corner” literally takes place on the street, full of slouchy, hyper-cool, everyday movements.
Dance once explored that in a revolutionary way in the Judson Dance Theater in the ’60’s, where walking, running and other everyday movements became an official part of the dance vocabulary. Now Kyle is transposing that postmodern attitude to a black attitude.
Casual, yet intriguingly structured, the highlight of “The Corner” was a duet for two men — playful and tender, sometimes exceedingly so, a dance that capitalized on an uncomfortable beauty. It proved that choreographers can give Ailey dancers original work that not only energizes but artistically sustains their audiences.