The Ailey Season Opens on a High
The company roster listed in the Ailey program alphabetically, but in the lobby there is a generous and useful photo display that presents the 32 dancers in order of seniority. It is something of a shock to see there that Mathew Rushing is now the third most senior dancer, having been a member for 12 years. He has somehow seemed like an eternal wunderkind, with his blazing technical facility, amazing lightness, and the meditative intensity with which he performs. Perhaps it's the boyish sweetness he seems to exude. But Mr. Rushing had quietly been adding a burnished maturity and nuanced dramatic projection to his dancing, and his extended solo that launches "Love Stories," the season's first major premiere, is breathtaking in its coiled power and breathtaking gorgeousness.
Set to Stevie Wonder's gentle, reflective "If It's Magic" and choreographed by Judith Jamison—who shared the creative duties for this dance with Robert Battle and Rennie Harris—the solo first presents Mr. Rushing as a dancer stretching and trying out moves, at times impatient and frustrated with his execution. Wearing simple practice clothes and appearing completely absorbed with the music, he has some of the same focused sense of discovery as the male dancer at the start of Jerome Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun"—he's exploring movement for himself, not performing. When his movements become more expansive, he is carried along by the music's innocent sweetness (the simple accompaniment to Mr. Wonder's plaintive voice sounds like a strummed harp) and seems to become a boy running along a beach or playing out in a field. His extravagant extension and seamless phrasing are a wonder to behold, but he's too unassuming to make this a showy display, and his beautifully modulated performance makes the solo feel like a seamless, reflective rumination.
"Love Stories" goes on to open up and out into a wide-ranging, splashy and celebratory ensemble work. In its actual opening moments, prior to the solo, Mr. Rushing walks on in near-darkness holding a glowing golden light. He releases it and it rises up to the flies. The light motif returns towards the end, when an abstract celestial backdrop is revealed, and the golden light is again brought onto the stage to close the proceedings. In between, a compact and brilliant ensemble of eleven romps through a display of high-energy, boldly athletic, precise yet abandoned dancing in a variety of styles.
In the first section following the solo, they wear sporty practice clothes in muted colors and engage in vigorous, playfully competitive dancing in the trademark go-for-broke Ailey style, but they appear to be dancing for and with each other rather than strutting their stuff for us. Pairs of dancers take turns coming forward to grab the focus for a few moments, and they all clearly take pleasure in each other's abilities. You get the sense of a dance company at work in the studio, testing their limits, digging into the movement's possibilities.
After a transitional interlude, during which dancers moving in unison exit one by one to a techno beat, a new section takes hip-hop movement and blends it with the sleek, juicy, revved-up modern dance that is an Ailey trademark. The dancers wear sneakers and shiny parachute pants with cropped tops in shades of red, peach and gold, and they rip through sharp isolations and acrobatic challenges with good-humored ease, bouncing on their knees when the movement calls for it. This section, though the program does not specify it, is Mr Harris' contribution, and it holds the eye and the interest, accumulating power gradually rather than seeming like merely a random display of gorgeous prowess. Mr. Harris deploys small groups skillfully, and gives one of the most exciting sections to four tough, dynamic women who give it an fascinating blend of sensuality and aggression.
During the next transitional interlude, Ailey's voice is heard within the engineered musical mix, speaking how he is trying to create a company that will "hold a mirror to our society, so they can see how beautiful they are." Then Dion Wilson appears in a downstage corridor of light, inching forward and back in coiled, African-flavored moves, his center of gravity low. Others follow his lead and the pace accelerates. Soon five dancers, in what look like retro jumpsuits in shades of red and orange, form a tight formation, and five more weave in through an opening located at the center rear of the stage. This is Mr. Battle's portion of the work, and he creates a very contemporary ritual, using the power of unison movement to strong effect. The dancers, after all they have already given us, take on a heroic glow as they march and reach with an ecstatic feeling of celebration. The movement includes moments that refer to the soulful churchgoing exuberance of "Revelations," with some pointing and strutting, and dancers breaking free with solo bursts of fervent dancing, as though they can't contain themselves. They seem to reach an end when they freeze in a line and the dark backdrop lifts to reveal the one that seems dotted with glowing crystals, but there is still a bit more, though it feels like an afterthougt.
While its title might lead an audience to anticipate a series of duets about relationships, "Love Stories" is rather a love letter to Ailey, a heartfelt expression of what he envisioned and how it has come to fruition and continued to develop. More compact than Ms. Jamison's "Hymn," which celebrated the man in a more literal way, it is an irresistible work that celebrates the inidividual flair and ensemble spirit of the company. How touching it is to see veteran Renee Robinson, in essence the company's prima, having the time of her life as one of the gang in this piece. And what a testament to the company's embarrassment of riches that this inspiring performance was given by an all-new "second" cast of the work, which was introduced at the opening-night gala on what was the 15th anniversary of Ailey's death.
Mr. Battle's intriguing "Juba," which alternates between folk-dance-flavored supportiveness and martial arts-like ferocity, is a tight work for four dancers that reveals new layers on repeated viewing. The nervously edgy score by John Mackey helps drive its sense of contained fervor, as though something violent and dangerous might break through at any moment.
Closing the program was—no surprise here—Ailey's "Revelations," performed by a cast of mostly newer company members rather than veterans. Venus Hall and Clyde Archer made something intensely intimate and refined out of the "Fix Me Jesus" duet. Rosalyn Deshauteurs and Antonio Douthit blazed through an intense but contained "Wade in the Water." And no one carries that fabled white umbrella with more command and flair these days than the wondrous Briana Reed.
2, No. 46