Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—Passion and Grace Wrought from a World in Chaos

We are living in a time of chaos and war while—maybe—emerging from a plague. There is no better balm for my soul than an evening in meditation on movement by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This legendary dance troupe is the standard by which many are measured. It has deep roots in Chicago’s Black Renaissance by way of Katherine Dunham who taught Ailey, Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins.

This program celebrates the 10th anniversary season of artistic director and choreographer Robert Battle. The Chicago performances also include tributes to Ailey and staging of Lazarus by choreographer Rennie Harris on other nights through the run. The dances created by Battle continue the theme of the Black American experience from their roots to arrival on the shores of America and the ongoing emergence in their own power. These dances are a remedy and an illumination of the continued struggles of all people. All performances end with the glorious Revelations by Ailey. It is an American dance classic in its own right.

These dancers are an extraordinary gathering of physical beauty and movement perfection. Each dancer is unique but as an ensemble, they form a body collective in many hues. Ailey’s form of dance is derived from African roots and rhythms as seen in the opening dance Mass. The dancers wear a collection of choir robes that enhance the flowing movements. Mass is a riot of color and coordination that calls to mind a video of flamingos moving in unison, and then a chaotic delight of intricate movements that accentuate the gloriously muscled and defined bodies of everyone. The dancers syncopate in gospel jump and balletic leaps and dives to the vibraphone and marimba music of John Mackey.

Photo by Dario Calmese.

The music is an integral part of these performances. Nina Simone singing Wild is the Wind by Ned Washington reverberates through In/Side, adding an earthy and sexy vibe. Dancer Solomon Dumas is a sculpted whirlwind with a mastery of the stage in a solo performance. The joyous Ella swings in a Nicholas Brothers-style romp to Ella Fitzgerald’s wild and precise scat singing of “Air Mail Special (Good Enough to Keep).” Unfold is made all the more evocative with the song “Dupuis Le Jour” by Gustave Charpentier from Louise, sung by the inimitable Leontyne Price. The dance is a paean to the sensuous lyrics of love and passion. Jacquelin Harris and Kanji Segawa mesmerize with their bodies entwined in movement, never completely losing connection to each other.

The performance ends with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. It is the masterwork born in 1960 and it remains a relevant telling of the struggles of bondage and the hope in the belief of redemption through faith. The songs are traditional gospel. This is the music that I grew up with and heard coming from the whitewashed clapboard churches in my ancestral town of Benton, La., to the storefront churches of Chicago. The company rocks the movements of shouting in the church, which has always tread the thin line of passion for God or for the flesh. From “I Been ‘Buked” to “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” I feel like I held my breath with my hands in a prayer grasp. The company moves with powerful imagery of hands reaching like so many trees and then in all white for the cleansing by baptism. The dance takes the audience to the river for the cleansing experience dear to the Black Baptist and Pentecostal church traditions.

I highly recommend that you go and experience the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater while they are in Chicago and wherever else you can see them. It is a healing and redemptive experience that hits on a visceral level. It is a great way to have the American experience in three acts of incredible artistry. 

Ailey runs through March 6 at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. Tickets are $48 to $112. For tickets and more information about the performances, visit www.auditoriumtheater.org and for more information and a deeper look at this American treasure, visit https://www.alvinailey.org/.

Covid protocols are still in place for performances. Please wear a mask over your nose and mouth while in the theater to protect the dancers, the audience, and yourself. Bring your Covid vaccine card and a picture ID. Live theater is back in Chicago and let’s keep it that way.

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Kathy D. Hey

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