Encore Michigan

Alvin Ailey soars and sparkles at Detroit Opera House

Dance March 18, 2019

DETROIT, Mich.–Alvin Ailey never disappoints. I’ve had the privilege of seeing them perform for 25 of the company’s 60 years, and their artistry, technique, and athleticism have remained unparalleled. Despite Mr. Ailey’s untimely death in 1989 and two artistic directors overseeing several generations of dancers work with various choreographers since then, the company has consistently brought to fruition his vision: to celebrate the African-American cultural experience and preserve as well as enrich American modern dance.

This weekend at the Detroit Opera House (as well as the week the company spent doing community outreach in the city) was a stop on the company’s 60th anniversary tour, and they offered something old and cherished as well as something new to celebrate the tremendous contributions and legacy of Alvin Ailey—the company as well as the man who created it.

The program included “Revelations,” the company’s most celebrated work. Choreographed in 1960 by Ailey, and born out of what the choreographer described as the “blood memories” of his rural Texas childhood in the Baptist Church, it’s a colorful, uplifting ode to Southern gospel churches.

Set to traditional spirituals, gospel songs, and holy blues, from “I Been ‘Buked” to “Wade in the Water” to “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” this masterpiece and cultural treasure is inspiring, whether it’s your first or 71st time seeing it, and always literally moves the entire audience.

With 11 dances in three sections, from big swelling ensemble numbers to solos, duets, and trios, the tiniest flick of a hand holds as much power as the company’s trademark perfect synchronicity and matching lines as well as stunning lifts and weight sharing including one dancer standing in arabesque while balanced on another dancer’s thigh. To say the experience is riveting is a gross understatement; and the triumphant finale, with women dressed in yellow with big hats and fans as well as stools for props, is utterly transcendent.

A criticism of the company is that though the dancing is always stellar, the choreography can veer toward overly light-hearted, avoiding the shadows of African American experience. However, Choreographer-in-Residence Rennie Harris has brought the darkness to beautiful light in the company’s first two-act ballet, “Lazarus,” which premiered last year. It’s the third in a trilogy the North Philadelphia born and raised Harris has created for the company, and it’s phenomenal.

This one-hour piece is an homage to Alvin Ailey the man and his experiences, both glorious and horrifying, from the violence of a Depression-era rural Texas childhood to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, it moves through the realities of African American history and both implicitly and explicitly raises the questions “What does it mean to be a black man in a white world?” and “How far have we really come?”

Shot through with Harris’s unique style of house street dance influenced by GQ moves such as rhythmic off-kilter rolling steps, sweeping leaps that twist in the air, leaning into and balancing on one hand while lifting the legs up in the air, the deeply personal and political dance is set to a richly layered and deeply affecting score that samples Terence Trent D’Arby’s “As Yet Untitled,” Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man in a White World” as well as Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and sounds of wailing, groaning, breathing, the growl of police dogs and the spray of fire hoses, heartbeats, gun shots, with clips of interviews from both Harris and Ailey.

Motifs include a dancer slipping through the arms of another, diving push ups with kicks, slow-motion running, waving arms while lying down to create a graveyard or perhaps a field of crops, quaking fists in prayer. It’s a brilliant mash-up that honors the realness, the tragedy, the darkness as well as the light of black experience in America embedded in each movement whose extraordinary musicality cannot be separated from the haunting score.

It’s a stunning tribute, to the man, the company, and the complex world so many have survived if not thrived. And “Lazarus,” paired with “Revelations” feels like both an honoring of the past 60 years, the tremendous achievements and gifts of Alvin Ailey, as well as a nod to a most promising future.

Week of 2/6/2023

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