Sunday, March 30, 2008

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater-Zellerbach Hall

Some dance performances stand out because of their creativity, spectacle or beauty while others stand out because they lack technique, originality, or innovation. After seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on its annual western tour, what stood out was a complete surprise. When pondering the four pieces in Program B (Night Creature, Unfold, The Road of the Phoebe Snow, The Winter in Lisbon) and trying to formulate an opinion, what I noticed most was the absolute hypocrisy inherent in dance criticism.

All dance critics must suffer from bouts of selective amnesia because they contradict themselves all the time. Without fail, a review by one writer can be filled with condemnation for a particular aspect present in a performance. Then, that same writer’s next review can praise and laud another performance for the exact same reason they felt the first one failed. Why? Did they forget their previous thoughts or just change their mind? Perhaps dance critics embody a ‘love/hate the one you’re with’ mentality; a fickle collection of easily swayed individuals. Or, is a contradictory nature a job requirement? As I view more dance from a critical perspective, I, too, discover the two-facedness of my own opinions. What disturbs me about one company; thrills me in another. The individualism displayed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a perfect example. I was excited by the unique quality of each dancer in the Ailey troupe, yet, in the past, this type of non-conformity has completely annoyed me.

The Ailey dancers were in no way a group of look-alikes. In Night Creature (1974), fifteen original artists were interpreting the choreography and consequently, the audience could see fifteen personalities emerge onstage. In the unison sections of the work, the leg extensions fluctuated which completely makes sense. On different bodies, extension heights should vary because no two dancers are exactly the same. So often in major ballet companies, there is a decision made on the height of the leg, and all dancers must adhere to it. These choices create compulsory movement; enforced upon the dancers rather than being generated from within them. The timing of the lifts in Night Creature was also distinctive. When the women jumped into the men’s arms and landed in a Russian split, the timing varied. Some of the couples arrived in this position a little later than others. Once again, the mixed timing was appropriate because each couple had already established their own identity and personality throughout the piece. Here come the inconsistencies with dance criticism. Sometimes these slight discrepancies suggest a lack of cohesion. And, they can be to blame for the failure of a piece rather than the reason for its success. I have made that judgment many times with other ballet companies; criticizing their lack of attention to uniformity. Yet, here the distinctiveness was astonishing; it was not happening by accident or due to lack of rehearsal. Night Creature was choreographed by Alvin Ailey as a piece for fifteen unique dancers, not as a showcase for a cookie-cutter company without soul or spirit. The Ailey company proved that cohesion does not have to come from replication. This piece was still unified, but it was the individualism of these dancers that held it together.

So, I am just as hypocritical as all the other reviewers and maybe that’s okay. Choreography will constantly exasperate, surprise and challenge biases and conceptions. You may hate something one day and love it the next and maybe that is just part of the job.

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