Saturday, November 5, 2016

Lincoln Center at the Movies: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alvin Ailey, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Later photos of Ailey included in the documentary portions of this PBS program showed him considerably more butch-looking and with a full beard.

A still from "Revelations."

KPBS ran a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (to use its full name) presented under the rubric of Lincoln Center at the Movies — not Live from Lincoln Center since this performance was live, all right, but it was given on June 18, 2015 — with the Ailey company, under the direction of its current (and third, after Ailey himself and Judith Jamison, who took over after Ailey died of complications from AIDS in 1989 at age 58 and ran it until her retirement in 2010) artistic director, Robert Battle, doing four dance pieces: “Chroma,” “Grace,” “Takademe” and “Revelations.” I remember my mother taking me to a few ballet performances when I was a child, but I never developed as much interest in ballet as I later did in opera — and I think I’m enough of a verbal person that dance, especially dance with no story context, doesn’t interest me as much as other forms of musical drama even though I certainly can admire the incredible skill it takes to do professional dancing at the Ailey company’s level. (And given my own Queer fantasies, the sight of a lot of scantily dressed, heavily muscular African-American men was going to have an aesthetic appeal aside from what they were actually doing!)

The first piece, “Chroma,” was a disappointment; choreographed by Wayne McGregor to an undistinguished music score consisting largely of electronic burbles, it did not make the extensive use of color I would have expected from the title. It opened on a bare white stage with a box at the back — though the box turned out to be, not the screen I would have expected from the piece’s title, but simply an opening through which dancers could walk and join the action on stage with their colleagues. “Chroma” was a series of dances, mostly by male-female couples but occasionally with same-gender ensembles and a finale for the entire company, which mostly relied on modern dance for the dance vocabulary but contained quite a few ballet moves as well — particularly a lot of poses for the women “en pointe” (ballet-speak for “on your tiptoes”). After a four-year career doing Broadway musicals starting with House of Flowers in 1954, Ailey founded his company in 1958 and dance eclecticism was part of his style from the beginning — he didn’t care whether a particular step was classic or modern; if it fit the music and the context, in it went. One problem with “Chroma,” aside from its virtually total failure to dramatize the title (I was expecting colored light projections on the back of that box that would have “danced” with the humans in front), was that its successive dance episodes didn’t seem all that related to each other; they followed each other in a sequence that seemed totally arbitrary, and I had the impression that the piece would work as well if they were presented in any other order (aside from the big ensemble which clearly had to be at the end). It also didn’t help that the men and women were costumed quite similarly, in all-in-one dance tunics, and the men were either bald or had close-cropped hair while the women also wore their hair short (or, if they had long hair, they were obliged to pin it up), with the result that the men and women looked very similar and it wasn’t always easy to tell them apart (particularly since professional women dancers, like women gymnasts, tend to have small breasts — large breasts would get in the way).

After “Chroma” came “Grace,” choreographed by Harold K. Brown to a musical score that opened and closed with Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” (the opening was a rather staid version for a male singer and chorus, the closing a more searing soul version with a woman closer to the sound of Mahalia Jackson, for whom Ellington wrote the vocal version — with his own lyric — in 1958; he’d written the melody as an instrumental solo for Johnny Hodges as part of his symphonic masterpiece, Black, Brown and Beige, premiered at Carnegie Hall in January 1943) and in the meantime filled in with appealing funk sounds by Ray Davis, Jr. and an odd record that was probably part of the cross-fertilization by which African musicians have been influenced by African-American music, since it had a vocal but the language was clearly not English and sounded African. The interview sequence spliced in before “Grace” was performed promised a more interesting piece than actually materialized; it mentioned that the figure who would dance the opening was “Mother God” and she would look down on the travails of a young person torn between spiritual and earthly lifestyles and ultimately guide him or her (it wasn’t clear) into the right direction. Some of the dancers were costumed in white, some in orange, and under traditional iconography the white-clad ones would represent Mother God’s angels and the orange-clad ones would be devils — but that wasn’t at all apparent in the actual performance, in which the dancers seemed to be moving pretty aimlessly and Brown seemed to be avoiding any actual dramatization of his stated theme. It also struck me as odd that the opening and closing dances to Ellington’s “Come Sunday” were double-timed; instead of creating movements that would link up to the long, flowing lines of Ellington’s beautiful ballad, Brown had the leading woman move in fast, jerky motions that contradicted both the music and the stated message of the piece. Fortunately, things got better in the second half of the program. First up was “Takademe,” a piece choreographed by company director Robert Battle (and, I got the impression, originally danced by him but now transferred to someone else) as a male solo to an a cappella vocal piece by Shala Chandra called “Speaking in Tongues.” Battle’s interview said he thought of the dance moves as working against the music, but they didn’t; instead they were so closely synchronized that the term “Mickey-Mousing” occurred to me. (The term began when Walt Disney released his first sound cartoons in 1928; he believed that audiences would accept a sound cartoon only if there were a very tight synchronization between what was seen and what was heard, and an ultra-tight integration of picture and sound is to this day known in the film biz as “Mickey-Mousing.”)

After that the company performed their signature work, “Revelations,” the only piece on the program created by Alvin Ailey himself. He first produced it in 1960, two years after the company was founded and at the height of the struggle for African-American civil rights — and while Ailey resisted having his company pigeonholed as a Black dance troupe and often hired non-Black dancers (usually other people of color), “Revelations” drew on Black spirituals and was a piece that, within a relatively abstract aesthetic, dramatized the African-American experience from slavery through the present and in particular how Black slaves exposed to Christianity had seized on the Biblical stories of the Israelites in bondage and used them as an analogy to their own experience. The songs used were “I’ve Been ’Buked,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?,” “Fix Me, Jesus,” an instrumental “Processional” (complete with African drums) that segued into “Honor, Honor,” “Wade in the Water” (driven, in this version, by a powerful electric bass line that was probably not what audiences heard in 1960) which segued into a reprise of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”, “I Wanna Be Ready,” “Sinner Man,” “The Day Is Past and Gone,” “Run for a Long Time” (that’s what the chyron title called it, though the same song was powerfully recorded a cappella by Odetta on her Carnegie Hall live album for Vanguard as “God’s a-Gonna Cut You Down”) and “Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” which was used not only as the closing piece but also for an odd encore in which members of the audience were encouraged to dance too. “Revelations” remains a classic piece — after seeing it I thought that “Grace” may have been attempted as a sort of sequel to it — a magnificent integration of African-American musical and dance tradition with the full armamentarium of modern-day professional dance languages. I found myself wishing we could have seen Ailey’s “The River” — created in 1970 not for Ailey’s own company but the American Ballet Theatre, with what was described in the narration for this program as a pastiche of Duke Ellington pieces for the music but which I’ve read elsewhere was actually a fully original work commissioned by Ailey from Ellington. (I also found myself wishing the company would choreograph a dance piece to the original 1943 version of Black, Brown and Beige, a piece which has taken its lumps from critics over the years but which I regard as the finest symphonic piece by an African-American.)