Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Mixes Gospel Old and Spacey New

Alvin Ailey photo
Close Encounters of the Energetic Alvin Ailey Kind at Limited Auditorium Theatre Run. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The glorious athletic dancers and ever-innovative choreographers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are having a short run at the Auditorium Theatre this week – get your creaky sitz bones to a show to experience some heyday works alongside new innovations.

The program changes with each performance, and the cast changes for repeated pieces. On March 8, the concert started with “Open Door,” a 2015 piece vigorously choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, scored by Latin and jazz music by Luis Demetrio, Arturo O’Farrill, and Tito Puente, all recorded by O’Farrill’s orchestra.

On a bare stage splashed by changing lights on the backdrop (designed by Al Crawford), a female soloist in a flowing cobalt blue dress with teal accents (designed by Keiko Voltaire) and tight chignon articulated her strong arms with undulations and isolations, later joined by a male partner. Their shimmies and dervish whirls matched the energy of the jazz horn riffs. More of the ensemble, wearing muted jewel tones, joined the pas de deux with crisp, unified movements, ending in a strut line of five women and five men in addition to the principal pair.

Open Door Choreography: Ronald K. Brown Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik nyc 212-362-7778
Ronald K. Brown’s “Open Door.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

After a pause, tall soloist Glenn Allen Sims launched into Ailey’s 1972 “Love Songs,” restaged by Masazumi Chaya. In a blue, pants-length unitard showcasing his muscular chest (designed by Ursula Reed), Sims celebrated classic tunes with a series of still poses and spins, from Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” Nina Simone singing “Poppies,” and Bob Russell and Robert Scott’s “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother,” which Sims concluded with a passionate floor crawl.

Following the first intermission was the 2015 piece “Awakening,” choreographed by Robert Battle, the first piece he has choreographed since he was selected by Judith Jamison to be the company’s artistic director in 2011 (making him only the third person in that role since its 1958 founding).

Set to dissonant, percussive, chaotic music by John Mackey – evocative, and a modern progression, of “2001: A Space Odyssey” – the corps de ballet wore uniform white pajama-like outfits with opaque-striped sleeves (by Jon Taylor), suggesting space uniforms (maybe “Star Wars” Storm Troopers after dark?) or perhaps mental institution wear. The dancers mostly moved as a tight unit, occasionally spinning out of orbit from each other, executing gymnastic stag leaps, jumps, and jetés, interspersed among stuttered steps, The Monkey and more dynamic floor crawls.

The lighting and backdrop reinforced the galactic ethos, with a “Close Encounters”-like star craft bay door leaking a strip of bright light, a Death Star-feeling central presence in a sea of pinprick lights, and a “Matrix”-esque chase of binary lights (designed by Al Crawford).

Another Ailey classic, 1960’s “Revelations,” followed the second intermission, a gospel celebration thoroughly embraced by the ensemble as well as the vocal and enthusiastic audience, which applauded most holds and lifts. The first of the three phrases, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” had the women in long, earth-hued dresses, and the men in pants and mesh tops (designed by Ves Harper), their arms moving from supplication to gull’s wings to the songs “I Been ‘Buked,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “Fix Me, Jesus,” which concluded with a crucifix lift.

Part Two, “Take Me to the Water,” had teal backlighting and swathes of wafting fabric to signify a baptismal river, while the company in white ruffles created a New Orleanian revival processional, complete with parasol, set to “Wade in the Water.” “I Wanna Be Ready” was a solo by Vernard J. Gilmore, who repeated the yoga boat pose motif throughout.

The final section “Move, Members, Move” was true to it’s edict, starting in front of a hot yellow sun surrounded by red (designed by Nicola Cernovitch), the women in long, period dresses, working floppy hats and fans on stools, and the men in church-goin’ pants and vests.

The testifying and gospel-infused movement was scored by “Sinner Man,” “The Day is Past and Gone,” “You May Run On,” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” which spilt over into a short encore.

The ensemble is appropriately on its “A game” so check out their unstoppable energy during this limited run.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater runs through March 13 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway. Tickets and information at 312-341-2300 and

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.