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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Jacqueline Green Andrew Eccles 2 E1489707642864

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Cal Performances

above: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jacqueline Green (Photo: Andrew Eccles)

Review by Jo Tomalin

The popular Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company returns to Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances 3/14 – 19, 2017 for its annual performance schedule, together with several interesting community dance events. The company presents three different programs that combine a mix of Bay Area Premieres, signature, and recent pieces that are created by a variety of choreographers, inspired by different topics and a range of music.

Program A on Tuesday March 14 opened with Deep, a Bay Area Premiere (2016) choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti.

Starting with gentle piano music on a beautiful dark and warmly lit stage (Lighting by Carlo Cerri) the piece opens with a trio of female dancers – later joined by three male dancers, building to large ensemble pieces. All dancers wear contemporary black semi transparent tops with the men in black velvet pants (Costume Design by Mauro Bigonzetti). Iberyi’s music includes lyrics that mostly propel the storytelling and choreography, weaving themes of European, American and African cultures.

The physical strength of a statuesque male dancer and two female dancers who balance on his knees is impressive. They perform some wonderful taut bound movement in power struggles. This piece is more effective in the large ensemble sequences, which showcase muscularity, deep low gravity and fluid movement. Interesting motifs are flexed feet and hands and inventive lifts, while the joyous music prompts a vigorous swaying of the ensemble, like a Greek Chorus.

Walking Mad, Ailey Bay Area Premiere (2001, Ailey premiere 2016) choreographed for nine dancers by Johan Inger, is set to music by Maurice Ravel and Arvo Pärt, focusing on emotion and how far one is willing to go to show it.

Bird song, dogs barking in the distance and Ravel’s much used Bolero play as the huge gray fence onstage moves forward. It’s a fascinating opening and does not fail to hold our attention! People come and go over and round the fence falling, leaning, jumping and with athletic lifts. The last section of the piece includes a wonderful moody duo by Danica Paulos and Renaldo Maurice to Arvo Pärt’s music. Costumes range from simple realistic day dresses in brown to five men in tiny red pointy hats doing a delightful humorous group dance – plus a sequence with the ensemble in bowler hats and trench-coats. The entire design of this piece is inventive and offbeat. (Costume and Scenic Design by Inger, Lighting by Erik Berglund). Choreography is at times fluid, dramatic – and farcical as dancers enter and exit through doors in the wide, high fence.

Ella, a Bay Area Premiere (2008, Ailey premiere 2016) choreographed by Company Artistic Director, Robert Battle came next set to music performed by Ella Fitzgerald with Lighting by Burke Wilmore. This is a much anticipated reworking of Battle’s original energetic solo into an equally energetic piece for two dancers. On Tuesday the extremely short Ella was well performed by Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel – who are both sharp and precise in every jazzy movement.  Wearing all black unitard costumes, with waistband and black sequin detail (Costumes by Jon Taylor). It’s vibrant, fun and very entertaining!

Revelations (1960) choreographed by Alvin Ailey and set to traditional music concluded the evening. The company is well known for this rousing theatrical piece and everyone should see it more than once – because of the imagery through Ailey’s superb choreography and the joyous energy audiences experience each time they see it. Ten short danced scenes tell a story celebrating the African American experience through three themes: Pilgrim of Sorrow, Take me to the Water, and Move, Members, Move – told through ensemble dance.

The opening dance is earthy, angelic, and beautiful, with extended outstretched arms like eagles. Warm lighting and inspired mise en scene draw the audience in to the visual storytelling immediately. It’s interesting that Ailey’s choreography from 1960 stands out in its completeness, it’s rhythm and arc, compared to the newer works seen earlier in the program. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air because the structure of the choreography is pure in its movement and intention, never seems dated, and it also brings out the best in the well trained vibrant company of dancers.

The shapes of the dresses are sculptural and lyrical as they twirl and the men’s metallic string style tops add to the imagery. (Decor and Costumes by Ves Harper, Lighting by Nicola Cernovitch).

The river, depicted by the famous swaths of fabric is iconic – as a dancer with the large sun umbrella wades through it. It’s a glorious moment and is always uplifting.

A duo by Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts is exquisite in its sustained tension and when he envelops her in his arms. Glenn Allen Sims performed his introspective physically expansive solo to “I Wanna Be Ready” with an admirable strength and pensive humility. Among the many other highlights is a trio (Daniel Harder, Michael Jackson Jr., and Yannick Lebrun) to “Sinner Man” with superb athletic off balance leaps, turn and precision timing, very well done! The final dance transports one back to a different place and time – where people wear their Sunday best – long golden yellow dresses and beautiful wide brimmed matching hats – and the men wear smart black suits with yellow satin vests (Costume redesign for “Rocka My Soul” by Barbara Forbes). The company sway and swirl rhythmically as one then dance with dynamic footwork – and you can’t help but stand and join in at the very end!

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Jo Tomalin, Ph.D. reviews Dance, Theatre & Physical Theatre Performances
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