Sunday, April 16, 2023

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Cal Performances presents
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
April 15th, 2023 (matinee)

Pictured: Jacquelin Harris
Photo Dario Calmese
Spring in the Bay Area has much to offer. Generally, the weather is pretty good. Flowers are blooming. The farmer’s markets are flush with new, exciting produce and longer days equal more time outside. It is also one of the best times of the year for the performing arts, especially dance. San Francisco Ballet is usually in the final programs of its season, Smuin Ballet is into its second dance series and there’s a plethora of contemporary work to take in. But by far, my favorite thing about Bay Area spring dance is the annual return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Cal Performances. Every year, their weeklong residency absolutely wows and delights the UC Berkeley community. And this year was no exception. As has come to be the custom, the company brought three unique programs to the Zellerbach stage. I was lucky enough to catch Program C, an epic, iconic quadruple bill of work by Founder Alvin Ailey and current Artistic Director Robert Battle.

Program C opened with Ailey’s Night Creature, a 1974 mini-suite set to Duke Ellington selections. The nocturnal atmosphere was undeniable – a constellation lighting effect projected across the back psych framed sparkling costumes of layered purples, greens and blues. The movement followed that same sense of collage with different vocabulary coming together to form a complete whole. Over Night Creature’s continuous three movements, many styles and genres were mined. 70s jazz with its sultry hips, slinky step-ball-changes and layouts; modern contractions, spirals and Horton laterals. Soft shoe influences. Classical ballet petit allegro and pas de chat. And while very different physicality, everything worked together so well. From lights up to the final cluster pose, Night Creature both mesmerized and captivated. And the Ailey dancers more than delivered in this technically challenging work. The music could have been a little quieter at the beginning, but it seemed like the booth adjusted as the piece wore on. 

Battle’s 2021 For Four also had music front and center. A compact, effervescent quartet, danced at this performance by Alisha Rena Peek, Xavier Mack, Deidre Rogan and Hannah Alissa Richardson, For Four celebrates the musical genius of Wynton Marsalis. At first, I wondered if each of the dancers might be following the line of one particular instrument, but as the piece developed, it seemed that their choreography, entrances and exits were more tied to specific musical phrases. Like the score, motifs recurred. Pointed fingers, knee falls, chaîné turns with goalpost arms. And while there were duets and trios throughout, each dancer also had a chance to solo mirroring the keyboards, saxophones and brass sections in Marsalis’ composition.

The iconic moments continued as Jacquelin Harris performed Ailey’s 1971 Cry, a haunting, potent solo made famous by the incomparable Judith Jamison. The program note for Cry shares this, “For all Black women everywhere-especially our mothers.” And the dance that Ailey crafted with that inspiration is both formidable and layered. Emotional tones varied – despair, hopelessness, realization and suffering met with resiliency, perseverance and at the end of the piece, joy. Harris reached along the diagonal before contracting inward; she strode forward in power before slowly curling down to the floor. Circular movements of the arms and upper torso took the focus towards the heavens. Cry communicates deep spiritual prayer and the brave act of remembering and on Saturday afternoon, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. 

Revelations (1960) closed the afternoon at Zellerbach Hall and it was no surprise that applause rang out before the curtain even went up. Like many AAADT fans, I’ve seen Revelations many times and have commented on multiple aspects of Ailey’s modern masterwork set to a collection of spirituals. Rather than repeat some of those thoughts, it seems fitting to revisit just a few of Revelations’ extraordinary, iconic moments. The opening wedge formation with its arm and palm choreography is simply thrilling. As are the gravity-defying back hinges that pepper much of Revelations’ first chapter. The écarté promenade and the final partnered pose are just two of the reasons why Fix Me, Jesus is so special. There’s the boat pose progression of I Wanna Be Ready; the double stag leaps of Sinner Man; and the bright yellow sun that ushers in that last scene. And truly, every instant of the finale, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham transports the audience to an entirely joyous plane.


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