DANCE REVIEW Ailey in Boston: Where’s the Energy?

Dancers Don’t Live Up to High Expectations

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Citi Wang Theatre

The highly acclaimed and accomplished Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre gave an unusually awkward performance on opening night of Ailey Week 2007 in Boston. Alvin Ailey founded his modern dance company in 1958. Following his death from AIDS in 1989, the company, under the artistic direction of Judith Jamison, remains true to its origins by re-staging original works by Ailey alongside more modern works by other choreographers.

Ailey’s choreography is a rich amalgam of dance traditions, including ballet, jazz, and modern techniques, especially that of his mentor, Lester Horton. The Ailey dancers are usually up to the challenge — their famously nuanced and virtuosic execution of such diverse techniques demonstrates an impressive commitment to training, leavened by charm, sincerity, and exuberance.

So what was behind Ailey’s rough start on Thursday? What explains the dancers’ uncharacteristically forced affect and the slightly kitschy feel? The dancers produced the requisite languor and wistfulness through an occasionally clichéd “The River;” they displayed cardboard grins required by the fast-paced and playful, but entirely forgettable “The Golden Section” by Twyla Tharp. But where was the usual Ailey vigor?

Normally, Ailey’s audiences are active viewers, cheering after solos, much as in the jazz music tradition, and creating momentum by clapping with the music. But Thursday’s performance saw an unusually restrained audience, lacking the electric feeling of anticipation that ordinarily charges Ailey’s events. To a company which thrives on making its audience happy, such a weak reception is understandably an obstacle.

Nonetheless, there were highlights, including a stretch of stillness in an early forest scene, where dappled lighting danced like sunlight on rippling musculature, even as the dancers stayed motionless, evoking the hypnotic effect of a river’s flow.

At the end of “The River,” veteran dancer Renee Robinson and male lead Clifton Brown created a psychologically compelling portrait of a couple’s complex relationship. The simple duet acquires a kind of mythic grandeur when the rest of the company materializes out of the background, posed in a chorus-like frieze, turning the couple’s specific plight into an archetype, the prosaic into the profound.

It was not until halfway through “Revelations,” (the last piece) that the majority of the audience finally shed their inhibitions and participated in earnest. “Revelations” is a collection of short vignettes drawing on Ailey’s own experience growing up African-American in small-town Texas during the Depression. Set to traditional African-American spirituals, this is the core of Ailey’s repertoire, appearing in almost every program.

Clad in white, Amos J. Machanic Jr. gave an intense performance in the vignette “I Wanna Be Ready,” finding dramatic tension (and exploiting gravity-defying physical tension) in the simple act of getting up from the floor, reaching up towards death.

In “Fix Me, Jesus” Linda Celeste Simms evoked gasps from the audience when she accomplished, with seemingly effortless grace, a nearly impossible move: a slowly unfurling back-bend while balanced on one toe, expressing authentic anguish and self-abnegation. The trio “Sinner Man,” pounded with raw power and desperation, its music set to a driving beat.

Most memorable was the grand finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” — we still have the song stuck in our heads. In a flurry of fans, stools, and formal dinner dress, the piece built to a crescendo as the audience surged to its feet, clapping in time with the music. The electricity was there, and propelled by cheers and applause the Ailey dancers, stomping, jumping, and pirouetting, were finally in their element.

This performance was part of the Bank of American Celebrity Series. Student rush tickets are available for $20; see for more information.