The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is celebrating their 50th anniversary with a unique series of seven performances (that’s 18,000 tickets!) at the Opera House thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston. I was there on opening night for the Boston premiere of “Go in Grace” (2008), a collaboration with the incomparable African-American women’s a cappella vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock (who themselves are sometimes featured by the Celebrity Series.)
Choreographed by an Ailey company member, Hope Boykin, “Go in Grace” integrates the dancers and the singers, including the sign language signer who has long been an integral part of Sweet Honey and the Rock. However, it feels like a light opera and fails to challenge the audience, the dancers or the singers. The music is more expository than melodic and the dancing is more descriptive than exciting. Despite such a bundling of talent on the stage, the thirty-minute piece (which isn’t repeated this week) lacks energy and needs edited down. The story revolves around a nuclear family with a dad, mom, teenage son and young daughter. When the son slips out of the lyrical rhythms of the patriarchal family to dance to the staccato hard beats of the two “boyz” – as they are listed in the program, the father dies of grief. We watch the daughter, a sweet deaf girl, as she grows up, petted and guided by the wisdom of the singers. By failing to engage us emotionally with any of the characters, “Go in Grace” lacks Alvin Ailey’s usual charm. As an audience member from London put it, “This was not entirely successful.”
Preceding “Go in Grace,” was a 12 minutes documentary celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary, with lots of audio and film footage of Ailey himself. Of particular interest are the clips tracing decades of productions of pieces like “Revelations” (1960) and “Cry” (1971) which encapsulate the most iconic of Ailey’s movement language. The development of the company over the generations into one of the most powerful American dance institutions is impressive.
Two classic pieces choreographed by the young Alvin Ailey himself round out the evening to audience delight. The always moving “Suite Otis” (1971) pays tribute to Otis Redding’s body of music with dances that remain today sexy, robust and cool. From the rhythmic opening scene of rippling naked male back muscles – not the least the super-human undulations of Jamar Roberts, to a witty, flirtatious cheek-to-cheek to the lyrical extensions done to “I’ve been Loving You too Long,” the work feels exciting and familiar at the same time.
The final piece is “Revelations,” through which Ailey established in 1960 the centrality of the African-American experience in modern dance. This is the Ailey company’s evergreen – it is never packed away and Ailey fans pride themselves on how often they have seen it performed. It is the only piece being offered every night of the run. In the opening scene, the dancers make no eye contact with the audience, always looking to heaven or lowering their heads. Grouped in the center of the stage, the audience responds to each of the iconic poses – arms like a flock of gulls, hands shooting up to heaven and lit from above – with animated recognition. The traditional gospel music is full and textured, in contrast to the first piece.
The fundamental tension in Ailey’s work is sexual. He clearly choreographs for the male body (duh!), but his couplings and story lines are strictly boy/girl. There is none of the gender play of a Mark Morris, for example, but Ailey’s men, often bare-chested and in tights, have the strongest, sexiest parts. The women are heavily costumed and often serve their props – whether it is a parasol, a fan or a ruffled hem. The men shake their booties shamelessly, to everyone’s delight, but the women rarely get to dance with raw sexuality.
Each performance at the Opera House has a different program, emphasizing original Ailey choreography, including many pieces that “haven’t been out of the mothballs for quite a while,” Jack Wright, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Celebrity Series, told me. Despite the economic downturn which has had a strong negative impact on donations, Wright feels they’re doing well at the box office. Compared to shows at the Wang in previous years, this Opera House appearance “is a more aggressive program and we are getting at least the audience we always get.” Since Boston receives the ever-touring Ailey company annually via the Celebrity Series, it should be a matter of pride that Bostonians are digging deep to maintain their support.