Five years ago, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was filmed performing a group of works including Wayne McGregor’s out-there Chroma and Ailey’s signature work Revelations. Deborah Jones explores those works, which the Lincoln Center is currently presenting as part of its On Demand program. She also introduces Cuatro, a new digital project from Sydney Dance Company and Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and alerts those who like to take a deep dive to the June streaming of La Sylphide from Russia’s Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The African-American cultural heritage is “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant but always hopeful”, said choreographer Alvin Ailey, whose life became dedicated to putting African-American performers and the African-American experience on stage. Ailey is not alive to see today’s sorrows – he died in 1989 – but his company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, continues his work. AAADT is a contemporary company capable of working in a wide range of styles, as you can see in this wonderful group of works filmed five years ago and presented here by Lincoln Center. They will be available until July 19.
The program opens with Wayne McGregor’s out-there, elegant Chroma, made in 2006 for The Royal Ballet and later taken up by other companies including The Australian Ballet. The Ailey dancers look spectacular in McGregor’s almost impossibly demanding choreography, which asks bodies to stretch and curve in extreme ways. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies.
Ailey dancers are no strangers to ballet training but this is a contemporary company and it shows. There is a greater sense of freedom and fluidity in the movement than is the case with classical dancers. That doesn’t mean the shapes are less exact or the overall structure less sharp. Not at all. This is more to do with attack and personality. While McGregor’s piece is abstract it does have enigmatic intimations of human connection that the Ailey company brings to the fore. Fascinating. I would have given anything to see the RB’s staging of Chroma in 2016 in which half the cast was made up of Ailey dancers invited for the occasion.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Grace. Photograph © Paul Kolnik
There is a complete change of direction after the shock and awe of Chroma with Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, created in 1999. It is nothing less than a journey to the promised land under the beneficent guidance of a goddess who, in her beautiful white costume featuring cut-outs and flares, is imbued with a radiant spirit and simultaneously very funky. The role is danced here by the transfixing Ailey veteran Linda Celeste Sims. The score opens and closes with versions of Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, which has been described as a modern spiritual, along with the get-up-and-dance rhythms of Fela Kuti’s Shakara and Roy Davis Jr’s Gabriel. The pathway from African to contemporary dance is made abundantly clear and is traversed with much joy.
The program closes, as most Ailey performances do, with the company’s signature piece Revelations, choreographed by Ailey just two years after he founded his company in 1958. They say it’s been seen by more people than any other contemporary dance work. Possibly so. Whatever the numbers, Revelations has been performed time and time again and is the company’s beacon. Revelations is where Ailey’s phrase “always hopeful” is made flesh. Danced to a clutch of traditional songs, the work celebrates faith and resilience. It is quite irresistible.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Revelations. Photograph © Paul Kolnik
There’s a fast, high, explosive trio for three men to Sinner Man and a glorious slow duo for Linda Celeste Sims and Glen Allen Sims to Fix Me, Jesus. The whole company raises the roof with the finale, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, and there’s nothing better than the rapturous, sensuous Wade in the Water. If there is one moment that perfectly sums up the euphoria the Ailey company brings to Revelations it’s the sight of Alicia Graf Mack in Wade in the Water. She carries a huge white umbrella that looks as if it could raise her to the skies at any moment and dances with a quality I can only describe as ecstasy, both temporal and spiritual. Magic.
The performances are interspersed with some useful interviews and there’s also a brief solo, Takademe, choreographed by current Ailey artistic director Robert Battle, on the program. All of it adds up to a couple of hours very well spent.
Many companies are sharing their archives with audiences, hoping to retain interest (and spur donations). We’re still some way from all restrictions on the performing arts being lifted so a few organisations are creating new work for online delivery as a way of reminding arts-lovers that it’s not all about a done-and-dusted past. New challenges require new approaches. Sydney Dance Company has teamed with Sydney Symphony Orchestra for Cuatro, four brief works choreographed by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela that pair a dancer with a solo musician. The extraordinarily talented Pedro Grieg produced, directed and filmed and designed the sets and lighting. Hats off. Cuatro #1 is already up on the websites of both companies and, until June 26, each Friday will bring a new work. All can then be seen until the end of July.
Cuatro #1 pairs SSO Principal Oboe Diana Doherty with SDC’s Charmene Yap. Yap was until recently a member of the SDC ensemble and is now the company’s rehearsal associate. It’s fantastic to see her again. Greig gives equal weight to Yap and Doherty, cutting back and forth. Both have serious presence and the contemplative choreography feels deeply in tune with the music, the Präludium from Heinz Holliger’s Sonata for solo oboe. At one point Yap’s hand and the merest shadow of her body are seen through opaque glass, echoing the enigmatic quality of the sonata. Holliger is now in his early 80s and is the only living composer used in Cuatro. He completed his sonata in 1957 when he was only 17 and revised it in 1999. There’s a lesson about patience and resilience right there.
The other three sections of Cuatro are to well-known and well-loved music by Paganini, Bach and Debussy. SSO concertmaster Andrew Haveron plays a marvellous caprice, No 11 in C, from the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin; Principal Cello Umberto Clerici glows in the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No.1 in G major and the last section is to Debussy’s entrancing Syrinx, from Associate Principal Flute Emma Sholl. The dancers are, respectively, Davide di Giovanni, Juliette Barton and Chloe Leong.
Watch out particularly for Cuatro #3. It might be only three minutes long but will linger in the memory much, much longer for its sumptuous look, feel and sound.
Finally, this is for those who really like to take a deep dive. The ballet arm of Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre may not be as celebrated as its counterparts in St Petersburg and Moscow but it’s well regarded in its homeland. You can catch the Perm version of La Sylphide until June 30, essentially the traditional one as seen at The Australian Ballet but with some interesting choreographic and dramatic tweaks by choreographer Ksenia Ter-Stepanova. The James of Nikita Chetverikov is danced with accuracy but not much charisma. Ksenia Barbashyova’s Sylph is more intriguing and there’s a lovely effect when she floats down from the window in the first act to continue her seduction of James. Ivan Poroshin chews the scenery enjoyably as Madge.