At 45, Ailey troupe still young



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.

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer
Posted: Friday, February 1, 2013, 3:01 AM


Robert Battle programmed Paul Taylor’s 1981 masterpiece Arden Court as the opening note on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s three-night run at the Merriam Theater, which began Wednesday. Even with the antique beauty of William Boyce’s baroque music, the company breathed new life into Taylor’s work, and into the closer, Ailey’s 1960 classic Revelations.

The six men in Revelations danced like tightly coiled springs rapidly released, or, in static moments, X’d their bodies stiffly to be turned hands-over-heels by one another; one man rolled across the floor as the curtain dropped.

Linda Celeste Sims, Rachael McLaren, and Alicia Graf Mack were ethereal ballerinas wafting over the men’s shoulders, but, as with most Taylor works, the men had the edge.

In Battle’s 1999 Takademe, Jamar Roberts charmed in red ruched pants by Missoni, wriggling his way through multiple personality changes to fit Sheila Chandra’s vocalizations.

The most sensational piece was the local premiere of Philadelphia’s own Rennie Harris’ Home, to a terrific musical arrangement by Raphael Xavier, another homie and a former dancer with Harris’ Puremovement.

Philadanco alumna Hope Boykin stood out in this hot number, which featured sizzling performances by the 14-member cast, led by the matchless Matthew Rushing. Xavier used New York house DJ Dennis Ferrer’s “Deep, Deep Where the Sun Don’t Shine” as an anthem, and its techno beat gave Harris a multiplicity of choreographic possibilities. With the cast huddled together as if for protection, Rushing broke out and began the fast, fancy footwork and flying fingers that mark this dance throughout. Ultimately, all broke into house dancing, each sometimes in his or her own cloud of energy.

But underlying the sensational torso bending and hip rocking were the B-boy moves Harris grew up with and is justly famous for having morphed into a new genre for the stage. Here, the moves were softer, as if seen through fog – so swift the hops, sideways skips, leg crossovers; so elegant the interactions. At this soulful work’s end, Rushing gathers everyone back into the hushed huddle.

Of course, any Ailey audience would stay all night to see Revelations over and over. The praise dance never loses its punch, its beauty, its sass. It’s a classic that will last forever.

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