I was sitting in my overheated office and musing about how heckin’ boring life is without dance when the SO’s mom wrote. «I’ve got two tickets to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this Friday. You guys wanna go?» A short flurry of texts later, it was determined that the SO would have to pass because of his work so we called it a girls’ night out, got a third ticket and invited my mom, too. All of us love to dance and to watch dance performances – it was a perfect fit.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a modern dance company founded in 1958 by the African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey. I had heard of them before, but hadn’t really looked up what they do. Fortunately, they tour all around the world, so I got to experience it first-hand.
As always when watching professionals, I was incredibly awed by the combination of power and grace in the movements of the dancers. You could probably show me just about any dance performance and I would love it. But what made Ailey really interesting were the varied and fascinating choreographies. That evening, the company performed four pieces: Open Door (2015), Piazzola Caldera (1997), the short but very intense Takademe (1999) and Alvin Ailey’s classic, Revelations (1960). Fortunately, Ailey has trailers for their whole repertoire on their YouTube channel, so you won’t have to rely on my inept descriptions.
Open Door, choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, draws inspiration from the rhythms and dances of Cuba. I adored this mix of Afro-Latin and modern. The solo parts were performed by Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun on that particular evening and we were particularly taken with Jacqueline Green’s amazing fluidity of movement.
During the first break, we – understandably – started talking about dance. The conversation took us to tango, which we are all quite fond of. The next piece, Piazzola Caldera, hit straight home: the choreography by Paul Taylor draws heavily on… you guessed it, tango! A very atmospheric piece, it contains a story element: a night spent dancing the tango in a dimly lit club, with both passion and a fruitless search for it. A drunk fight in the middle of it (1:33 in the trailer) was both a brilliant piece of choreography and a lovely touch of humour. It did not detract from the general intense tone of the piece. (I don’t think there’s such a thing as laid-back tango – the intensity is a huge part of its appeal.)
The third and final part of the show started with the short, weird and wonderful Takademe, choreographed by Ailey’s current artistic director, Robert Battle. The music, Speaking in Tongues II by Sheila Chandra, is an example of konnakol, South Indian vocal percussion. This was the first time I heard something even remotely like this and the fact that the music consists solely of a single rhythmically spoken voice makes the setting eerily intimate. The choreography is performed by a single dancer (Yannick Lebrun in our case) and combines elements of classical Indian dance kathak with amazing precision, speed and energy. The impression is that of minimalism, but not the kind of minimalism that results from a simple absence of things. It is the minimalism that arises from reduction to a single powerful element and leaves you completely spell-bound. I absolutely loved this piece.
And finally, there was Revelations. The most famous choreography by Alvin Ailey, it is described as the signature piece of the company. Having seen it, I understand why it has endured for over fifty years. Set to traditional spirituals, it is unbelievably expressive and diverse. I dearly love gospel music, even though I have never been religious, and the performance was nothing short of amazing. I especially loved the pas-de-deux to Fix Me, Jesus, danced by Michael Jackson, Jr. and, once more, the brilliant Jacqueline Green, as well as Sinner Man, performed by Samuel Lee Roberts, Jermaine Terry and Kanji Segawa. The final part, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham, was just pure happiness. I wasn’t the only one that thought so – there was a standing ovation afterwards. And during this ovation, the dancers motioned for the audience to keep at it and danced a little encore with over a thousand people clapping along. The moment felt like a rock concert, so the show definitely ended on a high note!
I loved every minute of the show and would certainly go see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre again (and again and again). Talking about dance with mine and my SO’s mothers was very interesting as well, since they have both had varied dance-related experiences, but completely different ones. My mom, reared on classical ballet, has remarked that what she loved about Ailey was the lack of symmetry in the choreographies. And it’s true: the only times symmetry is created it is only to be broken again. That makes even a piece without a tangible story, like Open Door, very engaging to the audience – even to such members of it that know little or nothing about dance (and I consider myself one of those). As such, I would recommend seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to pretty much anyone, dance nerd or not. It was an entertaining, diverse and captivating show. Ailey’s final show in Basel is today, after that they’re headed to Germany and Denmark, concluding the tour in September. If you get the chance, go see them and tell me what you think!