Alvin Ailey dance company a soulful elegance on stage
No dance company is better at combining lyrical precision, soul, elegance and verve than the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, here last week for its annual four-day visit thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston, which has brought the company to Boston yearly since 1970.
Friday night, the company performed four classics choreographed by company founder Alvin Ailey, including his 1960 masterpiece, “Revelations.” Entitled “Ailey/Ellington,” the program also presented three works Ailey created in the ‘70s to the music of Duke Ellington, restaged by Masazumi Chaya, with lighting by Chenault Spence. The clarity and pared-down purity of the fresh staging — from lighting and sets to pale pastel costumes, made these works timeless and new.
As a choreographer, Ailey blended mid-century modernist influences with what he called “blood memories” of his childhood in Texas — from church services to dance halls. Ailey’s works conjure a world of emotions and experiences, ultimately resolving in individual and communal harmony.
Now in its third year under artistic director Robert Battle, who was appointed by Judith Jamison, Ailey’s own protégé and successor, the company is keeping its classics fresh while adopting new works by contemporary choreographers.
In two of its five shows at Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, the company performed a program of recent works by choreographers Aszure Barton, Wayne McGregor and Bill T. Jones.
Friday night was the first of three performances of “Ailey/Ellington.” Dancing with their trademark prowess, dignity and joy, the company was bathed in audience love, earning roars worthy of a Red Sox home run.
The program opened with “Night Creature” (1974), a sassy and soaring mix of boogie-woogie, jitterbug and ballet that translates Ellington’s music into motion. The lighthearted staging cast the dancers in silvery costumes against a pastel backdrop. Linda Celeste Sims and Vernard J. Gilmore performed the snappy solos and duets while ensemble formations framed the pair in sculpted communal shapes.
Ailey created “Pas de Duke” (1976), his modernist reinvention of a classical pas de deux, for two virtuoso dancers, Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Dorchester native son Kirven Douthit-Boyd and Jacqueline Green performed this flirty and intricate game of one-upsmanship to a suite of five Ellington compositions. They appeared to have as much fun as the audience. Green was a foxy foil to Douthit-Boyd, who was almost hypnotic in his sinuous turns, designed to spellbind his partner.
The program’s third dance to the music of Ellington was “The River” (1970), which Ailey and Ellington created as a collaborative project. The first symphonic score Ellington composed for dance, the music, like Ailey’s flowing choreography, evokes water in its many forms, from a spring and meandering stream to rapids, a calm lake and churning falls. Ellington spoke of it as “of the well-spring of life … the heavenly anticipation of rebirth.”
Unfolding in eight movements, “The River” achieves a timeless classicism with its buoyant, ballet-inflected choreography as well as the mythical figures and shapes that the dancers form with their bodies. The dancing, music and serene staging blended together to create sublime stage pictures.
A dancer’s arms and hands fluttered with the delicacy of a breeze to the ripple of a harp. As they leapt and whirled in separate pools of light, Green and Antonio Douthit-Boyd were apart, but in harmony.
“Revelations” (1960), Ailey’s signature work, celebrates the heritage of the black church and its sacred spirit and body language, which elevates individuals and groups in scenes of suffering, survival and joy. In ensembles of collective harmony, Ailey’s dancers move as one.
With décor and costumes by Ves Harper and lighting by Nicola Cernovitch, Ailey set his choreography to a suite of traditional gospel spirituals. Speaking of the work’s three sections, Ailey said, “The costumes and the set would be colored brown, an earth color, for coming out of the earth, for going into the earth. The second part was the baptismal, the purification rite. Its colors would be white and pale blue. Then there would be the section surrounding the gospel church, the holy rollers and all the church happiness.”
The choreography includes solos, duos, trios and quartets as well as ensemble pieces. Dancing with her partner Yannick Lebrun to the spiritual “Fix Me, Jesus,” Akua Noni Parker made astonishing turns on one leg. In his solo to “I Wanna Be Ready,” Matthew Rushing slowly folded himself back and then sprang up, as if to heaven.
In the finale, the company is dressed for church as they sway and strut to the old spiritual, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” Their costumes, redesigned by Barbara Forbes, were the color of sunshine. Fluttering their fans, the women wore broad-brimmed hats and antebellum dresses and the men were outfitted in shirts and vests.
After taking their bows before an audience that would not let them go, the company erupted into a jubilant encore.