I’m always shocked when I hear someone say they’ve never heard of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This is a shame. The Alvin Ailey Company has created such a name for itself that its nickname is, “Cultural Ambassador to the World.” But, that’s not the reason all people, especially people of color, should know the Ailey name.
Back in March, 1958, Alvin Ailey boldly took American Dance into a new era. His company, which has been led by artistic director, Judith Jamison, for the past 20 years, has set a precedent for other modern dance companies to follow. Now, with the new artistic director designate Robert Battle at the helm, I’m sure the bar will be set even higher.
Last weekend, the Ailey Company performed at downtown Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The theme for their USA tour this season was the Best of 20 Years, celebrating Jamison’s 20 year tenure, as well as the world premiere of Matthew Rushing’s “Uptown.”
If you missed out on the Ailey show, try not to slap yourself too hard and make a resolution to see the company next year.
I attended the show two nights in a row, to take in as many pieces as possible. The first night was geared toward the Best of 20 Years. Of that show, I was most enthralled with “Bad Blood,” performed by Linda Celeste Sims and Clifton Brown. The passion evoked by Sims and Brown is electrifying. I really could feel the tug-o-war between the two dancers. I also give credit to choreographer Ulysses Dove for the aggressive sexual movements that, oddly enough, weren’t offensive.
Battle’s own “In/Side,” set to Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” is haunting and beautiful and heart wrenching. Miami native, Jamar Roberts, really tapped into the emotion of the piece.
I also enjoyed “The Winter in Lisbon” piece “Manteca.” It’s vibrant and creates this Caribbean vibe that screams Miami. Its Beach Blanket Bingo style expresses the comedic and sultry side of the company, as well.
“The Stack-Up,” the opening piece for opening night, was a colorful amalgam of fun and upbeat movements. Performed by the company, “The Stack Up” gave the show an exciting vibe.
“Revelations,” the company’s signature piece, was quite spiritually moving; as always. If Ailey neophytes don’t see anything else by Ailey, they owe it to themselves to see “Revelations.”
Now, on to “Uptown.”
A few years ago, Matthew Rushing injured himself and had a lot of free time on his hands as he recuperated. It was at this time that he came up with the magnificent work that is “Uptown.” With it, Rushing has breathed new life into the company, just by the joyous looks on all of the dancers’ faces.
One of the best things about “Uptown” is that it has an emcee. Miami’s own Amos J. Machanic Jr. is Victor, a dapper gentleman of the Harlem Renaissance who takes his audience through the artistic impact of that era with the help of the Ailey Company dancers. It was like watching a really, really good play.
The wonderful, lively, engaging, heartfelt, vivid, moving, and entertaining pieces of “Uptown” are: “No More Auction Block,” a slide show of black life at the turn of the century; “Welcome to Harlem,” an ode to the Harlem cityscape; Rent Party, which explores the comedic side of the tradition during that time, and “Great Minds,” highlighting W.E.B. Dubois’ and Zora Neale Hurston’s contribution to American literature with music-less dance interpretation.
“Uptown” continued with “Visual Art,” where a humorous painting comes alive with verve; “Divas, Apple & Jazz” features Tina Monica Williams, Rosalyn Deshauteurs, and Sims as Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, and Florence Mills, respectively. “Shuffle Along” depicts a quick fantasy of the auditions of the first all-black Vaudeville play. In “Weary Blues,” Brown shines as a Langston Hughes protagonist, and in “Cotton Club,” the company wows in crisp, bright white.
By showcasing the dances of the time and creating an ode to the Harlem Renaissance that is awe-inspiring, Rushing puts his 18 years with the Ailey Company to good use with this masterpiece. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Photo by Paul Kolnik. Renee Robinson performs a scene from Revelations, by Alvin Ailey.