Reviews - USA

Robert Battle Leads Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to New Heights

New York City Center
December 16 2012

By Leah Gerstenlauer.

For an iconic dance company with a successful, history-rich repertory and a loyal following, the notion of newness can pose a problem. To strike a balance between inevitable forward motion and the grounding force of tradition is no trivial undertaking. But in his second year at the artistic helm of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Robert Battle is tackling the challenge with grace and guts to rival those of his dancers.

The company’s New York City Center season featured four premieres and over a dozen pieces, by various choreographers, selected from the vast Ailey archives. I took in a collection of new works delightfully varied in tone and illustrative of the company’s remarkable adaptability — nowhere more evident than in Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, the first ballet by the Danish dance-maker to enter the Ailey repertory.

The elegant athleticism of Ailey’s dancers proved a refreshing and powerful alternative to the neoclassical angularity characteristic of the artists normally seen in Kylián’s choreography. With a pair of Mozart’s piano concertos providing the soundtrack and not-so-subtle sexual imagery laced throughout, Petite Mort requires both daring and delicacy of its six-couple cast, and the dancers indisputably delivered. Agile Alicia Graf Mack slipped into Kylián’s movement with liquid ease, while Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims offered a duet delicious in its playful, expertly-timed contortionism. As a group, the dancers seemed to relish the technical demands of a piece unlike any other they have experienced with AADT.

Battle’s own Strange Humors spurred a sensation of a different sort, sending palpable electricity through the theater. The dynamic male duet, originally devised for Parsons Dance Company, is an apt outlet for the adventurous physicality of Ailey’s younger generation of dancers. Renaldo Gardner and Michael Francis McBride seamlessly blended Battle’s mixed bag of genres — classical modern dance, hip-hop, latin social dance, even gymnastics — into a performance equal parts personal statement and convivial dance duel. While executing simultaneous solo work, the two men moved in different dialects, yet easily unified their language during phrases of synchronized action. The result: two dancers and an audience collectively bereft of breath and ready for a second round.

The high-energy evening continued with Kyle Abraham’s Another Night, an infectiously upbeat world premiere that paid homage to the Big Band era dance hall scene. Rachael McLaren exuded an irresistibly arresting charisma throughout, Daniel Harder served up a solo notable for both its humor and mercurial movement quality, and every other artist in the ensemble-centric creation had more than a moment to shine. Abraham’s choreography, though mildly monochromatic at times, generated an exhilarating atmosphere that the dancers clearly savored.

A new production of Robert K. Brown’s spiritual and spirited Grace, originally set on AADT in 1999, closed the program with cheer-inducing vivacity and a message of mindfulness for the audience. Linda Celeste Sims’ rich solo segments were well complemented by the superb musicality and technical precision of the corps, particularly that of Demetia Hopkins, whose vulnerable magnetism drew the eye. By the end of the piece, viewers were on their feet and applauding the entire collection of deserving dancers. If this night of new works was any indication of Ailey’s direction under Battle’s dexterous hand, the already thriving company has nowhere to go but up.

Top photo: Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Petite Mort. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

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