Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre
Onstage at Toronto's Meridian Hall February 3-4
Credit: Paul Kolnik. Company still from Kyle Abraham's 'Are You In Your Feelings'
Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator
The iconic Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre has been delighting Toronto audiences at Meridian Hall (formerly Sony Centre, Hummingbird Centre and, when I grew up, the O’Keefe Centre) since 1979. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this troupe live until last Friday evening! Since its humble beginnings as a single performance in a New York YMCA in 1958, Ailey and his trailblazing group of African American modern dancers have since created a Company of artists like no other with the U.S. Congress proclaiming in 2008 the Company, “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world”.
The current 32-member strong Company took to the stage with an exhilarating selection of some of Ailey’s classic pieces from the 1960s to the early 2000s, some with updated staging but all with the heart of Ailey’s inspired choreography to jazzy soul music. Artistic Director Robert Battle’s company of athletic and graceful dancers poured themselves into provocative storytelling with dazzling physical displays of strength, grace, technique and beautiful lines. Breathtaking!
The curtain rose to reveal 14 members performing all three movements of the playful and jazzily jaunty 1974 classic “Night Creature”. With Duke Ellington’s unforgettable soundtrack, this boy-chases-girl, girl-chases boy piece featured a sultry and flirtatious Sarah Daley-Perdomo leading Jermaine Terry and company in a dazzling and seamless integration of modern dance and ballet. Flowing tied-dyed costumes by Jane Greenwood and Elissa Tatigikis Iberti added colour to the piece as did solid lighting by Chenault Spence (although I did find it a little too shadowy and underlit for much of the piece).
After a brief pause to reset the stage, soloist Vernard J. Gilmore stunned in Judith Jamison’s brilliantly re-staged “Reflections in D”. Dancing from centre stage within a spotlight from above, Gilmore’s athleticism and technique held transfixed and enthralled me at the height of his jumps and intensity of his floor work.
After a 15-minute intermission, Act 2 started with Robert Battle’s incredible newer work, “For Four”, which let loose the distinctive styles of four of the company’s most vibrant individuals. Decked out in Corin Wright’s sequined tuxedo tails with fast-flying ponytails, homegrown (and only Canadian company member), Hannah Alyssa Richardson along with Kanji Segawa, Ashley Kaylynn Green and Kahlia Campbell made kicking and into-the-floor seem beautifully effortless. With music provided by Wynton Marsalis, the star of this piece was Ashley Kaylynn Green whose joy and energy along with stunning upstage cabriole jumps made this fast-paced swing-style staccato blur with electricity. More stunning displays of technique, styles and artistry in perfect marriage.
Next was the stellar modern duet, 2007s “Unfold”, with intense physical performances by Jeroboam Bozeman and Ashley Mayeux. This duo recounted a tale of anguish, denial, and support, with Mayeux spending much of the piece in unbelievable backbends and lying contorted on the stage, conveying equal parts vulnerability and physical strength. Her long hair and flowing dress, courtesy of Jon Taylor, added an almost feral desperation to her outstretched arms. Bozeman’s fluidity while standing and prone provided a perfect connection and moving example of powerful partner work. I was emotionally affected by this piece. My gasp was one of many when the piece ended.
Act 3 rounded out the 2-hour production with an audience favourite, Ailey’s legendary and indestructible 1960 favourite, “Revelations”. Most Ailey programs are capped with this inspirational and astounding compilation of short dances, intricately choregraphed to traditional spiritual music of the deep south. This 30-minute showcase of Ailey’s own religious upbringing in rural Texas is a genius work combining spirituality, history and even comedy. Such dazzling beauty and power of young dancers in what seemed like superhuman physical condition with finely-honed technique. I hope they wear kneepads in rehearsals. Jeroboam Bozeman, Chalvar Monteiro and Kanji Sagawa raced like whirlwinds through, “Sinner Man” (kudos to Sagawa who masterfully adapted after almost losing his trousers) and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” had the audience grooving to the soulful beats and intricate feats of this fabulous company. The crowd was finally satiated with a jubilant encore, swiftly bringing them to their feet for the final curtain call.
I would easily herald this as one of the greatest dance performances. Even with its disappointingly short run in Toronto, its three performances were packed. This is the dance company not to miss when it visits us again next year. Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre is rousing, resilient and repeatedly remarkable!