By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
Posted on Sat, May. 15, 2004
Last week, the United States Postal Service honored four great American choreographers with stamps of their own: George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Ailey, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, was the youngest of the honorees.
His now-legendary 45-year-old company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, thrives and balances on the maturity of former star and current artistic director Judith Jamison and the exuberant youthfulness of its spectacularly gifted company of 30. The audience that packed the Academy of Music Thursday night gave the Ailey-ens a roaring, hooting stamp of approval.
Two Philadelphia premieres, Alonzo King’s Heart Song and Robert Battle’s Juba, had the rib-pumping, bravura styles these dancers can deliver. The 2003 Heart Song is King’s second work on the company; audiences may recall his sensational Following the Subtle Current Upstream performed by the company here two years ago.
With its costumes and scenic design by Robert Rosenwasser, Heart Song is an instant classic. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Asha Thomas twirl out in sculpted, lit-up tutus that say 21st-century ballet and set the scene for solos, duets and large ensemble dancing to come. Among these exceptional dancers, many stand out: Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell for her truncated rapid moves in a duet, Benoit Swan-Pouffer for his high-flying jetes, and Matthew Rushing and Jeffrey Gerodias for their brotherly rivalry in a long, sinuous duet.
Although Juba is the term for a slave dance, Battle’s folk-derived, yet nearly mechanized, steps, Mia McSwain’s blue tunic costumes, and John Mackey’s original, highly varied electronic score suggested a Balkanized world, divided, unified, repartitioned and then optimistically reunified in a triumphant crescendo. Juba, Battle’s first work for the company, offered a wide geographical reach. As if the shape of the world depended on this dance, former Philadanco dancer Hope Boykin, Philadelphia native Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Samuel Deshauteurs and Rushing stretched it to global proportions.
The seamless fluxion in Elisa Monte’s 1979 Treading gave it the feeling of an amniotic float that was also erotic and athletic. Fisher-Harrell’s and Clifton Brown’s virtuosic interpretation of Monte’s dance displayed a slow contrapuntal control against Steve Reich’s pulsing Eighteen Musicians. Like two mighty rivers flowing purposefully to meet at their delta, the dancers ended this masterpiece with Brown carrying Fisher-Harrell aloft, her arms flowing behind her deeply arched back. Sadly, the lighting technician spoiled this gorgeous image by closing the spot too abruptly.
The now permanently endowed 1960 Revelations by the great Ailey closed the program and still revealed its timelessness, spirituality and jubilation. Gerodias’ solo to the hymn “I Wanna Be Ready” fully expressed the human need to reach one’s potential, which is what these dancers do.