Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Cal Performances presents
Linda Celeste Sims and Yannick Lebrun
Photo: Andrew Eccles
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 14th, 2017

While it isn’t yet officially spring, the over 70° weather in the Bay Area earlier this week might suggest otherwise. Trees and flowers are blooming everywhere, Memorial Glade has been packed with revelers and folks are opting to take their meals al fresco. Another fiber in this fresh scene is happening right now at Zellerbach Hall - Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly weeklong artistic residency at Cal Performances. Springtime on the campus of UC Berkeley would not be complete without a visit from this legendary dance institution, led by Artistic Director Robert Battle. And as with each year’s engagement, the company once again crafted a program that was so well balanced – a combination of past lineage and forward motion, all speaking from an array of choreographic perspectives.

Opening night and Program A began with Mauro Bigonzetti’s Deep, a 2016 work, and the first of three Bay Area premieres on the bill. Deep is choreographed in a suite form, a series of continual vignettes that combine together to create an artistic whole. Whether solo, duet, trio or an ensemble sequence, each compositional piece is distinct, yet they are all fused together by a common throughline, which in this particular case was two-fold. A conceptual (non-linear) narrative of passion and strength rang through each chapter of the work, as did Bigonzetti’s memorable, stylistic choreography, extreme intention and specificity informing every movement. Three women opened the dance, breathing through the space, their arms expanding, almost mirroring the lungs. These meditative motions quickly gave way to full body sculptural poses and positions, including a stunning promenade in parallel attitude to the back. The trio grew to a potent pas de six, and then to include the entire company in some alluring and beautiful ensemble choreographic statements. This group phrase material was gorgeous in its own right while concurrently providing a luscious frame for some featured duets and solos. Jamar Roberts’ mechanized isolations were of particular note, as was Jacquelin Harris’ brave, soaring leap at the end of their pas de deux. While a few of the middle sections did lag a little bit, Deep offered a solid and compelling start to the evening’s performance.

Next up was Johan Inger’s Walking Mad (2001), a highly physical dance theater piece that was all about the unexpected, the unanticipated and changing perspectives. A scene equal parts curious and comic marked the work’s beginning – wearing a long coat and bowler-style hat, Renaldo Maurice walked onto the stage’s apron and signaled the curtain to rise. On the stage, Danica Paulos was picking up clothes that were strewn about the space. Behind them was a long wooden fence. It was this structure (also designed by Inger) that provided the catalyst for surprise.

One might presume that it was a solid entity, but early on in Walking Mad, Inger dispelled that assumption. Doors appeared inviting new characters in and out of the space; parts of the wall decoupled from other sections; even the whole structure was laid down at times to be parallel with the stage. A comment on what is seen and what is not seen; on what we assume and what is reality. In keeping with the dance theater genre, Inger offered a significant dose of humor and purposeful oddity within the dance – at one point, dancers emerged from behind the fence wearing party hats. Their choreography retained Walking Mad’s changeable nature, moving effortlessly from pedestrian gestures to highly technical batterie to parkour-inspired movements. 

Then, all of a sudden, the mood again abruptly shifted – the whimsy was gone and the wall folded into a triangular shape, encapsulating Harris within a new scope. First alone, she experienced the space’s constraint, and then shared that truth with three men from the cast. And in yet another transfer of atmosphere and character, next, the ensemble donned wardrobe inspired from the beginning of the work. In hats and coats modeled after Maurice’s first costume, they danced a glorious and energizing unison sequence.

A lengthy duet by Paulos and Maurice closed the piece. While emotionally charged and impeccably danced, it felt like Walking Mad should have concluded with the previous unison sequence. Though, with a piece that was clearly subverting expectations throughout and successfully doing so, it occurred to me that perhaps this was the very point. I had anticipated one thing and something very different had transpired!

Battle’s Ella (2008) followed, a delightful, rompy five-minute duet, set to music by Ella Fitzgerald, and danced on Tuesday by Harris and Megan Jakel. Such a fun addition to opening night’s program, Harris and Jakel cycled through Battle’s sprightly mix of jazz, soft shoe tap, contemporary dance and acrobatics, even occasionally lip syncing along with Fitzgerald’s improvisational scat singing. And not only was the technique superb in this brief offering, both dancers looked like they were having so much fun. Keeping with tradition and custom, Program A (as will Program C) closed with Ailey’s 1960 masterwork Revelations. From its first iconic image – the cast center stage, their eyes agaze at the heavens – to the thrilling movements from “Fix Me, Jesus” – the promenade in écarté, the supported dips/falls and the rare pencheé to the front – to the pleadings and cupped hands in “I Wanna Be Ready”, Revelations continues to truly thrill at every viewing.

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