Arts dance review

Audience ‘Members Don’t Get Weary’

Alvin Ailey Dance Company delivers stunning performance of new pieces and old classics

8544 aaadt's clifton brown and glenn allen sims in twyla tharp's the golden section.  photo by paul kolnik
AADT's Clifton Brown and Glenn Allen Sims perform in Twyla Tharp's 'The Golden Section.'
Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey
Celebrity Series of Boston
March 22–25
Boch Center Wang Theatre

Chances are, if you’re picturing modern dance, you’re imagining something that drew its inspiration from choreography by Alvin Ailey, who is credited with popularizing the art form while simultaneously blazing his own trail. Ailey’s vision was to train dancers to have “a ballet bottom” and “a modern top.” The precision of the arch of the foot and the unbroken leg lines are hallmarks of foundational classical ballet training, as is the absolute control over movement and momentum. In the torso, the elements of modern dance appear — a focus on expressiveness and a disregard for ballet's strict movement vocabulary. However, it is not simply this aesthetic that makes Alvin Ailey unique and world-renown. In his technique and his choreography, Ailey drew upon African dance and jazz, as well as elements from blues, spirituals, and gospels. Ailey opened the floodgates for people of different racial backgrounds to participate in a previously exclusionary dance scene.

The first piece in the program, Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts’s “Members Don’t Get Weary,” is accompanied by a printed quotation by Ralph Ellison, which ends with “as a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” The blue-garbed ensemble, dancing to the music of the American jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, seem to embody the soul of jazz itself. The piece opens with 10 dancers, barefoot, wearing straw hats, whose movements are, at one moment, those of a field hand under the hot sun and at another, a person in rapturous prayer. The cut and color of the blue clothing is evocative of uniforms — those of janitors, prisoners, hospital workers. There is a “near-tragic, near-comic lyricism” (to quote Ellison again) to the huge broad-brimmed hats moving first in synchrony, then in spasmodic syncopation. The constant interplay between collective action and sporadic isolation, in which one member breaks away from the group, experiences something akin to a seizure or a revelation, and is helped back into the fold by his or her comrades, alludes to the comfort and, perhaps, constraint of community.

Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section” is an energetic, sparkling piece that features powerful jumps and spectacular duets. Because the emphasis of the Alvin Ailey Company is not on synchrony and uniformity, one is able to appreciate the individual as well as the ensemble. In watching “The Golden Section,” one’s eye can roam as it pleases, because each dancer is showcasing a different strength. “In/Side,” a solo performed by Samuel Lee Roberts (in Thursday’s performance), had the audience on their feet. The ascetic rawness and controlled power of this “leaf in the wind” rolled around on stage, as he leapt, and shook with stillness, reflected in an eerie blue light, was captivating.

The program finished off the evening with an Ailey classic, “Revelations,” which was first performed in 1960. After seeing it, I understand why it has been the finale to every Ailey performance for the last 48 years now, and why it is “permanently endowed.” It is not just the incredible technical execution, the timeless choreography, and the haunting lyricism of the piece that makes it a classic, but the history it represents. Choreographed in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in America, “Revelations” was a strident and radical act.

The parallel that came to mind when I was watching the performance is that “Revelations” is to the dance world as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is to the literary world. Ailey choreographs the numbers to traditional spirituals and gospels, like “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” and “Sinner Man,” and the resulting piece covers the range from suffering to unrestrained joy. The duet “Fix Me, Jesus” is breathtaking, with technically difficult movements executed with such apparent grace and feats of balance with such apparent ease. “Wade in the Water” was a joyous celebration, the dancers having exchanged their browns for starched whites, the movements no longer slow, rigid, and drawn-out, but natural, giddy, and flowing. While the Ailey dancers might often depict moments of extreme emotional turmoil and pain, every one of their movements is an unapologetic celebration of life.