As part of its 50th anniversary tour, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the country’s great dance companies, returned to UNC’s Memorial Hall and a packed house for the first performance of a two-night run. Presented by Carolina Performing Arts, the concert also featured the a cappella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, currently celebrating its 35th season of performances.
The program opened (after the screening of a short film about Ailey and the company) with a 2008 work by company dancer and Durham native Hope Boykin, set to music by and including in the movement the singers of Sweet Honey in the Rock. It is an interesting, if not particularly successful, experiment in unifying music and dance. Go in Grace seems to be a benediction and set of lessons for girls about to become women, but it is overly literal and prescriptive in both song and dance (“keep your heart wide open and your legs closed tight”). The women of Sweet Honey represent “the community” surrounding Father, Mother, Brother, Little Girl, and the Boyz, which would be a good idea if their presence didn’t clutter the stage space and cause a kind of fuzziness in the dance images, even while they filled the hall with the ringing clarity of their voices. Ms. Boykin is a beautiful dancer herself, with a joyous energy and a talent for complex communicativeness in her dancing, but she has not yet successfully transferred that knowledge to her choreography.
Suite Otis, a 1971 piece by George Faison set to a medley of Otis Redding songs, is far more enjoyable, if less ambitious in its social mission. It reminds me of Balanchine’s 1970 Who Cares?, that delightful frolic through Gershwin tunes — only here, of course, the thing is done with soul. The interesting thing is that Balanchine’s piece looked back at (wonderful) popular music from an earlier period while Faison was completely in the now, responding to the music of the moment with a dynamic immediacy. Nearly 40 years later, you can still feel the freshness. These particular songs evoke strong memories in me, so I am sort of like Pavlov’s dog here — I’m probably going to like whatever is done along with them — but who could fail to appreciate a stage full of gorgeous brown men in hot pink Lycra, sashaying and high-kicking, spinning and lifting equally beautiful women in flaring pink dresses? Gotta, gotta, gotta, na, na, na!
The evening closed with the very great Ailey classic, Revelations, first performed in 1960. This three-section work set to ten gospel songs includes dances at all scales from the solo to the full-company, stage-filling crowd. Each dance is a study in choreographic excellence, filled with an emotional power reliant entirely on dance’s abstract body language, and together they form a masterpiece that the viewer can return to with ever-increasing joy and respect. One of the hallmarks of Ailey’s style is the use of simultaneous extremes — for instance, a woman may descend into the deepest of pliés while extending her neck and raising her arms and stretching her fingers to the highest possible point — to express a spectrum of experience, belief or feeling. You see this in all the dances in Revelations, but nowhere more clearly than in “Fix Me, Jesus.” Not to be irreverent, but there was nothing to fix in Linda Celeste Sims and Clifton Brown’s performance. When Sims extended one leg at least 30 degrees above the horizontal and then leaned back, arching into a full backbend with her head just off the floor, and Brown reached in to support her at the very instant when faith must either fail or be rewarded — well, it was a moment of artistic perfection. Dance and dancers were indivisible, making from extremity, balance. That fleeting tableau will remain engraved in the memory of anyone who saw it.
Note: This program was repeated 4/22.