Ailey troupe’s ballet vigorously looks at racial inequities

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs unique two-act ballet, choreographer Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus” at Zellerbach Hall. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

What’s a critic-reviewer to do when, after seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Company for the umpteenth time, he wants to use a superlative he’s never used before?

Well, if that critic-reviewer is me, I run to an online thesaurus or three.

Superb. Outstanding. Magnificent.

Those are the first synonyms for excellent I find. But I’ve already worn them out.

Exceptional. Marvelous. Wonderful. Perfect. Matchless. Peerless. First-rate. Splendid. Sterling. Terrific. Awesome. Mind-blowing. Brilliant.

All well-deserved by “Lazarus,” the company’s avant-garde, impressionistic, modern ballet phenomenon that I caught at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. But I’ve used each of them a lot more than once.

Then it hits me: Badass.

Because that label fit the tenor of the evening most appropriately.

“Lazarus,” a 15-dancer performance choreographed by 55-year-old, stereotype-breaking, hip-hop dance innovator Rennie Harris, knocked my socks off, metaphorically at least. Because I’d been an Ailey fan since the git-go, and this season marks the company’s 60th year, I’d presumed the two-act piece (something the troupe had never tackled before) would be extraordinary. But I didn’t expect it to be that good.

The unique ballet is as great a stylistic achievement for Harris as choreographer Bob Fosse’s original bowler hats, canes and chairs, turned-in knees and so-called “jazz hands” were to Broadway.

Alvin Ailey ballet troupe displays raw emotions in “Lazarus.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Harris’ dark, agonizing images were so striking, in fact, that I suspect they’ll be seared into my brain for years: Zombie-like marchers. Lynched cadavers swinging. Bodies falling after shots ring out. Men and women with heads dangling to the side. Hands writhing gracefully from cemetery plots. Dancers crawling on all fours.

Memorable, too, were Harris’ celebratory moves: Arms reaching for the sky with untethered excitement. Triple-fast, scissor-like dance steps — in amazing synchronization, even when a dancer comes from offstage and joins a chorus line — with dexterity that seems to exceed human muscle potential. Vigorous booty-shaking. Rapid, rhythmic hand-clapping that instantly remove any hint of negativity. Outstretched arms with black power fists.

Sounds also became a part of the ballet’s essential fabric: Deep male voices chanting mournfully. Unintelligible group whispers. Sorrowful cries. Dogs barking. And apropos recordings by Nina Simone (“Feeling Good”), Odetta (“Glory, Glory”) and Michael Kiwanuka (“Black Man in a White World”). Music dipping into folksy plantation spirituals, standard jazz riffs, and, as might have been predicted, hip-hop.

I was mesmerized, as well, by intriguing costumes from Mark Eric, and dramatic lighting by James Clotfelter.

Overriding all that, though, were staged contrasts between life and death; movements slow-mo and swift, graceful and twitchy; and Ailey’s recorded voice suggesting personal history laced with allusions to the broader racial inequities plaguing the country as he founded the dance troupe in 1958 — not to mention the superimposition of his verbal recall of “blood memories.”

Although “Lazarus” seemed an ideal lead-in to the final Cal Performances segment, the upbeat “Revelations,” Ailey’s iconic, biblically-oriented masterwork that I’ve savored several times, I could also relate to ballet buffs so overwhelmed by the majesty of the first piece that they left as soon as it ended, desiring only to let in simmer inside them.

Upcoming Cal Performances dance dates at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dan Street on the U.C. Berkeley campus, include controversial choreographer Boris Elfman’s new ballet, “The Pygmalion Effect,” May 31 through June 2. Information: 510-642-9988.

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Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →