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Alvin Ailey II is the junior company of the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. But one would scarcely know that they are anything less than seasoned dancers in a major company. They are already artists and are touring nationally and internationally. Their appearance in Wilmington was greeted by the audience with obvious excitement and, at the end, literal roars of approval.
The performance was part of UNCW Presents, which has a number of events each season in Kenan Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The performances are often by artists and groups who cross genre lines, and the series counts as one of the most interesting and varied in the Port City, a place already fairly brimming with cultural offerings.
There were four numbers on the program. Along with featuring upcoming young dancers, Alvin Ailey II also showcases emerging choreographers. The first was choreographed by Juel D. Lane and was called Touch & Agree. The piece features four rather abstract elements ranging from one dancer to the full company. It began with two dancers ("Waiting") on chairs with their backs to the audience, to the soul music of Sam Cooke. Exciting solos emerged fairly early; virtuosic, energized dancing turned out to be an important component of the piece and of the evening and was immediately impressive. (A particular "step" which one could not help noticing was the gymnastic adroitness of the pair of dancers who jumped backwards, with a single seemingly effortless upward push, on to the chairs which were their props.)
Some of the movements, in their both-sides-of-the-body symmetry, displayed the trademark Ailey combining of African with other dance elements. The combination was true of the music too. There was a segment with a light background of only drums, African in sound, and another segment with just a couple of isolated drumbeats. There was also a significant segment of musical silence. The notion of beat without sound creates a different and effective experience of dance. The variety in the music highlighted the variety in the scenario and the progression through the groupings of dancers.
With the energy and solo display of the first number, one waited eagerly for the second, Ebb and Flow, choreographed by Troy Powell, who is the artistic director of Ailey II. This piece was performed by two dancers to the Adagio for Strings of Samuel Barber. It challenged the viewer in that the dance seemed to always tug at the music. The two figures were sometimes in flowing movement – with the beauty of line one savors in Ailey – but more often had significant energy and muscularity, as opposed to the flowing lyricism of the music.
One is left to imagine the connection of what could be a couple. Are they struggling to be together? Straining at the possibility that they might be? The title suggests such an evolving, uncertain relationship.
The performance chosen for the music was at a relatively quick tempo for this piece, presumably to support the pace of the movement. It was also played quite loudly, almost too much so for comfortable listening, or for the capability of the Kenan Auditorium sound system. Perhaps this is an element in the struggles of the characters?
There was a standout moment when, at the big climax of the music, the dance came to a dramatic stop along with the stop in the music. The audience responded openly to that. If the piece was ultimately rather enigmatic, the beauty of both the movement and the music left an impression.
The following extended, multi-sectioned work was choreographed by Robert Battle, artistic advisor to Ailey II. It was titled Flock and was performed by seven dancers. At times the title seemed quite literal to the action, with lines of figures running back and forth in graceful progression and creating ongoing movement across the stage. There were fabulous solos again and a good deal of spinning movement. One section had dancers with chairs on their backs, another had some of them lounging in the chairs. A memorable moment had the single, quasi star of the piece, resembling a tribal leader, in front of the other six dancers forming a web around one another in complicated physical interface. Quite a few places reminded the viewer of Alvin Ailey himself, in the multi-tiered groupings creating a dense and elaborate stage picture.
The music propelling this colorful and engrossing display was written by Evelyn Glennie, the international percussionist who is profoundly deaf. (She has written about her own experience that she hears acutely, but through parts of her body other than her ears.) Much of the music focused on the marimba and drums, and it was by turns mellow, rhythmic, and visceral, sometimes with thumping syncopation. It evoked a tribal quality and energy which drove the high energy on the stage. The exciting complexity of the rhythms again combined elements one could think of as African, with a good deal more. This piece put the full virtuosity of the Ailey dancers on display, and it was an energy and artistic level that a viewer does not forget.
The last number was the signature piece of the company and of the great Alvin Ailey himself: Revelations. Now sixty years old, it retains every bit of its power. In the universality of its emotions, the incandescent spiritual and gospel music, and the choreography which seems to translate that music directly into the poetry of movement, it is a durable classic.
Though it has larger and smaller groupings of dancers, it is in essence a company piece. One could imagine the group of dancers approaching it with the reverence that might attend a prima ballerina coming to dance, say, the Firebird. If that is so, it also would appear to be a living reverence. In the several performances this writer has seen of Revelations, this one seemed to have a slightly different caste, a relatively strong and muscular character, yet still entirely suited to the expression of the work. It also moved with a seamless flow which arced from the self-reproachful, "I Been 'Buked" to the ecstatic celebration of the ending "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham."
Standout numbers which might be mentioned: the beautifully expressive duet, "Fix Me, Jesus," where the slow, lyrical lines and swan-like balancing were memorable (even with moments of slight adjustment of equilibrium or foot position) and called forth yet another display of deserved appreciation from the audience. "Wade in the Water," is a beautiful, dynamic scenic evocation of a river. "I Wanna Be Ready" pleaded movingly with the Lord. In "Sinner Man," one felt the affliction of the figure running from the face of the Divine. Could that not be any of us? And the cumulative joy and intensity of "Rocka My Soul" just has to be experienced. The exuberance of the assembled company in bright light and colorful costumes, celebrating the ascent to heaven, is one of the great moments to witness on the stage.
Each earlier piece had been greeted with enthusiasm, but here came the roar of the audience mentioned before. When, as expected, the company repeated the final number, the audience joined in clapping on the backbeat, and at the end roared even more loudly than they had the first time. Such communication is at a fundamental level of experience which connects us all. One could simply revel at being part of the human family which has brought artistry and communication of this depth into being.