At the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, black lives have always counted. But these days, the company’s repertoire has more to say about it or maybe a different way of saying it, with a deeper urgency and radiance – and a dance that seems to cry out for some sort of freedom. Ailey’s 1960 classic âRevelations,â still closes many of the company’s programs, but is it mandatory? What if, on an experimental basis, the company begin the show with “Revelations”? And what better time than now, when audiences are so grateful for live performances, to shake things up?
The company’s repertoire, which has improved under the tenure of artistic director, Robert Battle, allows for more choice. Ailey didn’t open her season Wednesday at the New York City Center with âLazarus,â by hip-hop master Rennie Harris, but she should have. The opening was a gala evening on Wednesday, ending with, of course, âRevelationsâ. The understated and beautiful “Lazarus” on Thursday was even more spellbinding as it explored the systemic oppression of black people that began centuries ago and continues today.
Has “Lazarus” become more powerful and raw? Is that more relevant given the dramatic events that have taken place – the murder of George Floyd and the wave of uprisings in 2020 that demanded an end to police violence against people of color – since its premiere in 2018? Yes and yes and more yes.
Witnessing “Lazarus” was more than experiencing a new reunion of a dance company that had been put on hold by the pandemic. The company delivered a performance in which the dance became something else: a liberation, both moving and soothing. The dancers, with their lightning footwork, cut out the scene. It’s a shame that due to security concerns related to the pandemic this season is shorter than usual: “Lazarus” is only scheduled for one more performance, on December 16th.
On Friday night, with âRevelationsâ – the crowd roared throughout, even though the performances weren’t as well oiled as usual – the company presented premieres by Battle and its resident choreographer, Jamar Roberts. Both pieces were released as digital works during the pandemic; it was their first time on stage with a live audience.
Roberts’ “Holding Space”, named for the empathetic action of being present for another person, also refers to its architecture. The actors, arranged in rows, perform in solitary squares. When Roberts choreographed the work, there were safety protocols in place requiring the dancers to be six feet from each other. For the first part of âHolding Spaceâ, it’s obvious: the tense opening movements include a web of arms and legs – throwing themselves, reaching, twisting – inside invisible walls.
The jarring music, by Tim Hecker, along with Brandon Stirling Baker’s otherworldly lighting – crisp white, icy blue and, later, golden amber – create a sci-fi feel as the dancers escape their confinement to drift into solos. A cube appears; inside, dancer Jacqueline Green stretches and contortions her long limbs with sculptural ease, as well as what appears to be an escape urge: with one foot flexed, she extends one leg in front of her torso and arches back – a test not only of his balance, but also of his daring and determination.
When Green comes out of the cube, others take his place, lastly Yannick Lebrun, who pushes against phantom forces, rocks his torso back and forth and opens his arms like wings. When he leaves the structure, James Gilmer touches him in the back and resumes the dance; here, the lighting changes to amber and the music gives way to silence.
For this solo – an addition, and a good one, to the virtual version – Gilmer, showing the flexibility of his strength, allows the movement to soften as he passes through his bones. His change of shirt also indicates a transformation: before, the tops of the dancers featured a structured edge between the shoulder and the sleeve. Now they are soft and the dance follows suit – harder and angular, the choreography now floats like a vehicle of tenderness and healing.
Certainly, in the look and in the choreography, Roberts, also credited with the stage design and the costumes, created something elegant. But is it sustainable? âHolding Spaceâ falls into the category of a pandemic dance – not only for its spatial arrangement, but for its themes of isolation, containment and, ultimately, transformation. While it has some lovely moments – Gilmer’s solo, in particular – it feels grounded in a period and its constrictions without being particularly revealing as a work of art. Battle’s “For Four”, a snazzy of about seven minutes to music by Wynton Marsalis, is more surprising. It’s light and floaty – at least it seems.
In it, the dancers – Renaldo Maurice, Solomon Dumas, BelÃ©n Indhira Pereyra and Samantha Figgins – strike the musical notes with their bodies. they hit hard. Their wild energy, seductive at first, becomes frantic, almost manic with time; are they having fun or are they desperate? Despite the showbiz smiles of the dancers, the sequined jumpsuits and the clapping hands, âFor Fourâ has something ominous simmering beneath its surface.
It’s a sprint to reach the finish line: Dumas is electrifying, feverish, while Figgins is a vision of flexible fluidity. Pereyra’s whirlwind of perpetual motion is only stimulated by her whipped, full hair – the hairstyle has never looked so delicious. When, suddenly, an American flag is projected on the back of the stage, Maurice, shirtless, collapses to the ground; the projection also slides across the floor, where bits of red seem to spill over her skin like blood.
As the final notes play and the dancers stand calmly at the back of the stage, each with a raised fist salute, Maurice rolls across the floor like an open fan – or a needle spinning on a record. “For Four” isn’t just about the urge to dance in the midst of a pandemic: it’s a frenzied fight for freedom of body and soul.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, until December 19, New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org