Born in 1931 in New York City and often credited with popularizing modern dance for all audiences, Alvin Ailey was both a visionary and a legacy-maker. His dance troupe continues today, inspired by his gift of fusing homages to African American culture and history with contemporary dance.
The name “Alvin American Dance Theater” is a perfect fusion of language to describe the performances of this eclectic and powerful company. Their performance of four works (The Hunt, Revelations, Stack-Up and Shelter) Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami was a revelation to this reviewer.
This was my first Alvin Ailey show and it will not be last. There were many elements that made the night memorable, beginning with the strong contingent of African Americans in the audience, all dressed up in sparkles and bling, elegance and sex appeal to show their adoration for this revered troupe of balletic and athletic performers whose works cross the boundaries of ballet, contemporary dance, theater and performance art all at once without making you dwell on either genre.
The Hunt by Robert Battle
Perhaps the most poignant piece of the evening was The Hunt choreographed by Robert Battle. It beckoned elegy and prophesy all at once. Watching the warriors prepare for battle brought me to visions of young men sacrificed in needless conflicts from The Vietnam War to the current forays in Afghanistan. The Hunt nearly brought me to tears with its allusions and its metaphysical dimensions pushing the limits of drama and raw tension. Consisting of six male dancers dressed solely in tribal skirts and masculine bravura, the work was devastating in its emotional range and in its naked athleticism as it paid reverence to the human body’s cathartic limits. At once an abstracted testament to warfare and a mirror to the contemporary urban violence today’s African Americans face, The Hunt was a mesmerizing display of masculine rage. The highlight of the piece was the synchronized movements of each dancer to the hardcore drumming swells near the climax.
It was a sight I will never forget, combining the raw power of a rock and roll song with the tumult and imminent heartache on the horizon of war.
Immediately following The Hunt, Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey, laid bare the female side of all the rage and loss implicit in the preceding piece. This all-female performance was moving, gentle, beautiful and graceful. In short, it was the magnetic opposite of The Hunt with all its feminine power and angst, artfully displayed by the six female dancers and the three male figures.
The evening began with a groovy, almost parodic ensemble piece called Stack-Up and choreographed by Talley Beatty. The suave and sexy disco-inspired set piece pushed the envelope of soulful celebration and 1970s inspired kitschcraft to evoke the days of Soul Train and Saturday Night Fever. When the disco ball over the dancers descended near the end of the performance and illuminated the entire hall, well then I dare say many of us were ready to bust out some prime moves in the aisles. It was fun and a cute entry way into the more emotionally weighty performances awaiting the audience.
Revelations concluded the evening in humorous and ironic fashion. The antebellum style outfits and tongue-in-cheek subversions of white power with genteel black ladies being waited on by their male suitors melded poignant allusions to American and African American pre-civil war history with a contemporary design on bodily movement and music. It was a fun way for the evening to conclude, especially with the cast’s gracious encore performance that had the entire audience on their feet shimmying and swaying in adoration and respect.