writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

29 December 2003.
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

I first saw Donald McKayle’s 1959 Rainbow Round My Shoulder, a staple of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, very close to its early-1970s Ailey première. Although I always admired it and have watched several generations of powerful dancers in it, I’ve never seen a performance to rival the one at the matinee on December 21st, during the company’s annual New York season at City Center. The seven men in the Chain Gang, their arms braided by the choreography into a taut line of linked woe, erupted in fury and crumpled in grief with such precision of timing, kinetic discipline, and variety of emotional texture that an onlooker was simultaneously pulverized by the misery of the work songs and plaints that impelled them and delighted by the brilliance of the dance action that prompted the feeling. I’ve been at performances of Rainbow where the Chain Gang didn’t seem very far removed from a chorus line; this was quite something else—a messianic embodiment of historical imagination. Soloists Vernard J. Gilmore (as The Boy who learns that he now has no life outside his memory of one) and Clifton Brown (as The Man who, despite his “long chain,” gets murdered anyway) delivered characterizations that rendered the heart—so immediate and visceral that their individual stints on Calvary elicited tears in some audience members. In the triple role of the Sweetheart, Mother, and Wife who variously haunted their dreams, Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines—second-cast in the part (after Renee Robinson) this season and, I believe, making her debut in it—gave a performance that merits some kind of an award. She simply didn’t look like the same person performing three roles. Like the men, she was deeply immersed in the music and the dramatic expression—a tribute to McKayle himself, surely, as he rehearsed both casts for this new production of Rainbow as part of the company’s 45th anniversary celebrations. Yet her achievement was even more terpsichorean than thespian. Her dancing, especially as the Sweetheart, conveyed a truly dreamlike illusion of a body made of putty, turned inside-out by the intensity of the dreamer’s wishes: in the course of adagio transitions that passed through poses without ever pausing in them, she always sought the extra stretch, continually floating from balance to off-balance, often when she was on high demi-point, while her face maintained the composure of a Yoruba sculpture. Sayyed-Gaines performed with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt before joining Ailey in 1998, and I wonder if something of Forsythe’s choreographic methods, which pressure and twist dancers to extend their movement beyond the orthoganal axes that are the basis of classical art, might have contributed in a salutary way to her effects. And what effects they were: in one passage, Sayyed-Gaines performed a turn in a low arabesque, then, prompted by ascents in the melody of a song, converted the low arabesque into two or three higher ones, the last of which seemed, isometrically, to pull her forward and backward at once. I couldn’t quite believe I saw all the elements of this phrase until she repeated it, observing the different levels exactly, all in service to the lyrics and the dramatic implications of the melody’s contour. Thrilling. The performance was also enhanced by what looked to be a clarification of Chenault Spence’s lighting—with its “rainbow” of frosty dreamlight, bloody daylight, and celestial gold—and by what sounded like a newly remastered recording of George Tipton’s piercing renditions of the Chain Gang songs that Robert DeCormier and Milton Okun arranged from the treasure trove collected by John and Alan Lomax—the father-son duo who cofounded the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress—on their travels through the Deep South in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. It is possible, of course, that all the production values looked and sounded brand new because the dancing was of such a high order. Still, this was the first time I’ve ever seen a Rainbow where the gut-splitting life of the prison camps that Alan Lomax described with such vividness in his 1993 memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, were on the stage, in motion, rather than on a library shelf, in allusion.

As time goes by, McKayle’s repertory—now performed by companies across the United States—has emerged as work that is stronger in its craftsmanship, as well as more complex in its treatment of subject matter, than Ailey’s, even though the very discipline its craft requires from its dancers keeps it from generating Ailey’s mass appeal, which is based on freeing the personalities of performers to pour across the footlights. New York hasn’t been able to see as much of McKayle’s dances as would be good for audiences and young choreographers in the city, although, with his comparatively recent appointment as “artistic mentor” for the Limon Dance Company, that situation may beneficially change. Ailey’s genius in showcasing performers, his intuitions about music he respected, and most especially his exuberance and humor can’t be learned; McKayle’s more analytic approach to music and choreographic design, and his understanding of how to present the dancing body so that it “reads” under the proscenium, can. Like Paul Taylor, he has been able to learn about dance construction from Martha Graham and other modern-dance pioneers without also, on the one hand, accepting the inheritance of their psychology and subject matter or, on the other hand, confronting the audience directly as a target of entertainment. In McKayle’s work, as in Taylor’s, the fourth wall is still a wall, and the choreography plays by the rules that entails. (Ailey, in contrast, often punched through the wall to establish an I-Thou relationship with the audience, as at the end of Revelations or in parts of the self-mocking Night Creature. Like Isadora Duncan, who preceded him in this, his successes were outsized, but so were his failures.) To some extent, the two other works on the program with Rainbow attempted to work within this stage-as-the-world approach. Jennifer Muller’s Footprints, a corporate venture (John Brooks, Tracy Kofford, and Yumiko Yoshikawa are listed as Assistants to the Choreographer) commissioned for the Ailey this year, was the more legible and gave more opportunities for its cast to shine as individuals. Muller, who once danced for Limon, still retains vestiges of the choreographic geometry and sense of magic places in the stage that Limon’s mentor, Doris Humphrey, speaks of in The Art of Making Dances, a book now, lamentably, out of print. Heartsong, Alonzo King’s suite of disconnected dances to music and in a setting that evokes the Middle East, offered a more impoverished sense of choreographic design, and its resolute presentation of dancers in deconstructed examples of the ballet lexicon sometimes made it difficult even to tell what they were doing: the work may benefit from a smaller stage than that of City Center. Nevertheless, it presented a number of memorable scenes—a duet for two men, one touchingly dependent on recognition by the other; a wife grieving for her mate, who, dying (or perhaps dead and summoned to an afterlife), painfully rolls away from her toward an implacable underworld guide—that made me want to see it again, despite my irritation with its politically correct insertions of multicultural steps into the ballet lexicon. Both Muller and King, it seems to me, are trying to reinvent a wheel that Humphrey and Graham long ago refined, and that McKayle and Taylor are using on imaginative speedways.


In order to complete this Letter by the deadline, I had to wrench myself away at intermission from the stupendous performance of Savion Glover and his collaborators at the Joyce in a program called Improvography. My colleague, Susan Reiter, is reviewing the whole for The DanceView Times; my point here is that the show runs through 4 January, and if you love dance and music, drop everything and go. Although, as the title notes, the dancing is different at each performance, the basic elements of the production don’t vary. In the first half, on a specially constructed (and miked) sprung floor, Glover spends a little less than an hour showing why the other tap dancers—and tap aficionados—look to him as perhaps the greatest virtuoso in the history of the art form. He can do absolutely anything, at rates that are faster than one can hear, with varieties of loudness and softness that one didn’t know existed, in the manner of any historic tap star, and he deploys his limitless armamentarium of achievements in service of constructing a dance, right on the spot, with a beginning, middle, and end. In Improvography, he also sings (standards from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood), a feat of breath control—given that he’s doing it, a capella and on pitch, while dancing—that beggars description. One dance is two-footed and bracing, in the manner of his beloved teacher Lon Chaney; another is light, playful, full of crossing legs and textural variety—a kind of tribute to the Nicholas Brothers or Coles & Atkins. Yet another has a toddler’s exuberant discovery of rhythm, recalling the late Gregory Hines. A walk of Lexus-smooth paddle-and-roll steps invokes the great Bunny Briggs; a sequence of nerve taps so delicately controlled that one can’t even discern his foot move invokes. . .I don’t know, Michelangelo. If you want to see an entire dance tradition summed up and also extended in an afternoon, this is it.—Mindy Aloff


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Performances at City Center

Thursday, 18 December 2003, 8 p.m.

Serving Nia (2001)
Choreography by Ronald K. Brown
Assistants to the Choreographer: Diedre N. Dawkins, Telly Fowler
Music by Roy Brooks (“The Free Slave,” 1998), Branford Marsalis (“Jungle Grove,” 1997, performed by Buckshot LeFonque), M’Bemba Bangoura (“Tomanka,” 1999), John “Dizzy” Gillespie (“Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac,” 1952, performed by Dizzy Gillespie)
Costumes by Omatayo Wunmi Olaiya
Lighting Designs by Brenda Dolan
Dancers: Renee Robinson, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Venus Hall, Asha Thomas, Rosalyn Sanders, Cheryl Rowley-Gaskins, Matthew Rushing, Guillermo Asca, Vernard J. Gilmore

Treading (1979)
Choreography by Elisa Monte
Music by Steve Reich (“Eighteen Musicians”)
Costumes by Marisol
Lighting by Beverly Emmons
Dancers: Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines, Glenn A. Sims

Night Creature (from “Ailey Celebrates Ellington,” 1974)
Music by Duke Ellington (“Night Creature”)
Original Costumes by Jane Greenwood
Fabric Dyeing by Elissa Tatigikis Iberti
Costume Designs Recreated by Barbara Forbes
Lighting by Chenault Spence
Dancers: Linda Celeste Sims, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, and Company (Movement I); Linda Celeste Sims, Amos J. Machanic, Jr., Cheryl Rowley-Gaskins, Laura Rossini, Rosalyn Sanders, Tina Monica Williams, Hope Boykin, Olivia Bowman, Samuel Deshauteurs, Dion Wilson, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Jamar Roberts, Clyde Archer (Movement II); Linda Celeste Sims, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, and Company (Movement III)

Black Milk (first version 1984, current version 1992)
Choreography by Ohad Naharin
Assistant to the Choreographer: Adi Salam
Music by Paul Smadbeck
Costumes by Rakefet Levy
Lighting by Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi)
Dancers: Clifton Brown, Jeffrey Gerodias, Jamar Roberts, Matthew Rushing, Glenn A. Sims

Hymn (1993)
Choreographed and Directed by Judith Jamison
Text Conceived, Written, and Performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Music by Robert Ruggieri (Music track produced by Rick Kerr)
Original Costumes by Toyce Anderson
Costumes Redesigned by Jon Taylor
Set by Timothy Hunter, Daniel Bonitsky, and Donald J. Oberpriller
Lighting by Timothy Hunter
Dancers: Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines, Glenn A. Sims, & Company (“A Head of State”); The Company (“Spiritual Walking”); Dudley Williams (“Never Spoken”); Samuel Deshauteurs, Briana Reed, Dion Wilson, Clyde Archer, Abdur-Rahim Jackson (“I Have Nothing”); The Company (“Dance”); Guillermo Asca & Company (“Survivor”); Linda Celeste Sims, Vernard J. Gilmore (“Cathedral”); Asha Thomas & Company (“The Search for Perfection”); Jamar Roberts (“Cathedral”); Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines (“Black Dress”); Clifton Brown (“ Whores in a Whore House Comin’ to Church”); Olivia Bowman (“The Mask”); Abdur-Rahim Jackson (“A Message”). There are also a “Prologue” and an “Epilogue.”

Sunday, 21 December 2003, 3 p.m.

Footprints (2003)
Choreography by Jennifer Muller
Assistants to the Choreographer: John Brooks, Tracy Kofford, Yumiko Yoshikawa
Original Score Composed by Lawrence Nachsin
Costume Designs by Karen Small
Lighting Designs by Jeff Croiter
Dancers: Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Asha Thomas, Tina Monica Williams, Rosalyn Sanders, Venus Hall, Jamar Roberts, Matthew Rushing, Vernard J. Gilmore, Amos J. Machanic, Jr., Clifton Brown

Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1959)
Choreography by Donald McKayle
Music: Traditional Chain Gang Songs, arranged by Robert DeCormier and Milton Okun
from the collection of John and Alan Lomax
Vocal Soloist: George Tipton
Original Costume Designs by Domingo A. Rodriguez
Lighting Design by Chenault Spence
Dancers: Vernard J. Gilmore (The Boy); Clifton Brown (The Man); Clyde Archer, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Jeffrey Gerodias, Dion Wilson, Jamar Roberts (Ensemble); Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines (The Dream—Sweetheart, Mother, Wife)

Heart Song (2003)
Choreography by Alonzo King
Assistants to the Choreographer: Debra Rose, Lauren Porter
Music Composed and Performed by Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Yassir Chadly, Hafida Ghanim
Costume and Scenic Designs by Robert Rosenwasser
Lighting Designed by Axel Morgenthaler
Dancers: Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, Wendy White Sasser, Venus Hall, Jamar Roberts, Linda Celeste Sims, Clyde Archer, Jeffrey Gerodias, Clifton Brown, Amos J. Machanic, Jr. (“Arabian Drum Beat”); Asha Thomas (“Allah ya Mulana”); Clifton Brown, Benoit-Swan Pouffer (“L-Klam L-Mrassa”); Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, Tina Monica Williams (“Tala’a I-Badru ‘Alayna”); Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Clyde Archer (“Taqsim”: improvisation for violin); Vernard J. Gilmore, Jeffrey Gerodias, Jamar Roberts (“Rebbi Mulay”); Linda Celeste Sims, Amos J. Machanic, Jr., Clyde Archer (“La ilaha illa Allah” and “Taqsim”: improvisation for ‘ud); Wendy White Sasser, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, Jeffrey Gerodias, Rosalyn Sanders, Tina Monica Williams, Asha Thomas (“Arabic Lullaby”); Clifton Brown, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Vernard J. Gilmore (“Kwitini ya Na’ima”); Abdur-Rahim Jackson & Company (“Group percussion and Darbuka solo”); The Company (“Allah Mulana Mulana”)

Savion Glover: Improvography
Joyce Theater

Sunday, 28 December 2003, 3 p.m.

Direction and Choreography by Savion Glover
Musicians: Tommy James (Musical Direction and Piano), Patience Higgins (Saxophone and Flute), Andy McCloud (Bass), Brian Grice (Drums), James Zollar (Trumpet)
Lighting Designs by Brenda Dolan
Sound Consultant: Allen Rowand
Costume Stylist: Yvette E. Stapleton (Wardrobe Provided by Armani, DKNY, and Phat Farm)
Dancers: Savion Glover and members of Tii Dii: Alexandria Bradley; Marshall Davis, Jr.; Michelle Dorrance; Hannah Heller; Maya Smullyan-Jenkins; Andrew Nemr; Cartier Anthony Williams

Note: The music is recorded for the second half of this program.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 14
December 29, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Mndy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on December 29, 2003