Heads rise in one organic swish. They sway to and fro while one head pops up gasping for air out of the flood of bodies taking up center stage. Looking up to the light, the dancer gnaws as if they could pull themselves off the floor. But what brings each person up is one another.
The moment of unity in Aszure Barton’s “Busk” best encapsulates the April 9 performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at The Music Center. The company displayed an expansive range of movement in its performance, pulling together various pieces that centered around community, ancestry and artistry.
“Busk” cultivated a collective mentality, pushing the ensemble to move as one, leap by leap. The costumes designed by Michelle Jank draped the bodies in black hoodies, turning each huddle and transition into a streaming flow of water. The athletic movement collided with personality when the choreography called for crude gestures that came and went in the blink of an eye. It kept the audience on their toes, waiting to see how the characters on stage investigated their own mind and attempted to understand why they were trapped in a box of white light on the stage.
Outside of the piece’s unified efforts, there were solos that showcased individual dancers of the company. Dancer Jaqueline Green steps outside the formation for portions of the piece, stretching her arms out and taking up the entire stage in each movement. Every swing of the arm and leap forwards took over every corner of the stage. Dancer Patrick Coker’s solo in the center of a square spotlight displayed the effort it took to do the piece. The solo began as a soft repetition, and as the phrase sped up, the movement gained a new texture that took hold of the breath.
In the shorter pieces choreographed by Robert Battle, “Ella” and “Love Stories,” the sense of unity extends to the audience, inviting people to cheer and clap along.
As explained in a statement by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, “Love Stories” expands on the African concept “Sonkofa,” which explains that “we don’t know where we’re going unless we know where we have been.” The piece is grounded and suave in its movement as each dancer comes together to embrace the joy of expression. As “Love Stories” went on, the audience joined in with claps, praises and shouts. Children laughed and people brought their hands high. The audience became part of the piece in a beautiful celebration of life.
The choreography highlighted each dancer as they homed in on a specific movement vocabulary, whether it be a jump or swing of the arm; They each adopted their own signature. By the end, as lightbulbs appeared above their heads it was as if they made it to the final destination: an understanding of who they are and where to take the next step. It’s a deep and strong celebration where each of their signature movements collides in a bright dance that shines with joy.
Meanwhile, the playful choreography of “Ella” brought the audience in with it’s fast movement that plays along to the scatting of Ella Fitzgerald’s live concert recording of “Airmail Special.” The piece was short, but don’t let it fool you. The amount of movement held onto the breath and did not let go.
The two dancers in the performance—Samantha Figgens and Renaldo Maurice—shuffle from each side of the stage, showing off each other’s dance that is playful and full of contemporary vocabulary and social dances. It pulls vocal praises out of the audience. This time, the conversation between the dancers on stage and the audience is like a tennis match that bounces reactions back and forth. Facial expressions are also a large part of the piece as dancers don’t waste a single second to entertain and fully embody the playground they’ve created for themselves.
It wouldn’t be an Alvin Ailey show without “Revalations”—their traditional performance that never ceases to amaze and bring the audience to stillness. The piece is set to spirituals, gospel and blues to depict the experiences of slavery, baptism, religious celebration and freedom. The opening piece, “I Been ‘Buked,” comes in breaths as the dancers create tableaus of a living and breathing entity. As dancers arc their arms together and hold, their breath is still. Then into a deep stretch, we see the beauty of a new beginning—a new community.
Transitioning into “Take Me To The Water,” dancers dress in all white and take up the entirety of the energy around them, stretching from their legs and arms to twirl and reach out to something beyond them, but close. Set to “Wade in the Water,” the dancers flow like water from left to right and rely on each other to pull themselves back together from the chaotic currents a few dancers create.
“I Wanna Be Ready” sets the spotlight on a single dancer that embodies all the struggle revelations built up thus far. Jermaine Terry contracts while on the floor and floats as if he is in the water, reaching up. Slowly he swims up, floats once again and then falls deeper into the depths of the water. The final piece in “Take Me to the Water” perfectly displays the signature modern movement of Alvin Ailey and the reason he creates and shares the story of the African American experience. He displays the constant struggle of swimming up and getting caught in the current and tossed back to the ocean floor. But still, Terry brings himself back up and persists.
And in the joyous conclusion “Move, Members, Move” is set to 20th-century gospel and holds a more uplighting tone. Dancers dressed in yellow display the joys of faith. It concludes with a celebration as the men trot and play with the women on stage, bouncing to the beat and standing on chairs full of energy. It’s a look forward, ending the night celebrating the joys of life and the complexities of the history the body holds.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is on their 2022 Tour until May 8.