Even the magnificent dancers of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater can’t shine in less than magnificent choreography. And so it was illuminating to see the three pieces the troupe performed at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night.
The opener was the company’s biggest premiere this season – Odetta, a tribute to the famous folk and civil rights singer choreographed by Matthew Rushing, a beloved longtime member of the Ailey troupe who’s now rehearsal director and guest artist. And the dance’s message of lifting yourself up, of human spirit and potential, is straight down the center of the Ailey ethos and certainly an appealing one – the audience Friday seemed to like Odetta.
We get that message from the soundtrack, Odetta’s recordings of songs like This Little Light of Mine and Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, as well as brief interview clips. Hope Boykin is an inspirational, motherly Odetta figure; with her solid, powerful body and warm, luminous aura, she’s a compelling presence. But Rushing’s choreography is both overly literal and amorphous. Most of the movement looks very much in the Afro-modern vein of Ronald K. Brown, in whose dances Rushing has often excelled; even the lines and columns of dancers recall Brown pieces like Grace. But Rushing’s version of this style looks wandering, ill-defined, and totally unrelated to the music.
Instead, Rushing builds on the lyrics - sometimes the dancers sort of act out the songs: they bounce on benches to Motherless Children, with its references to a train; in the anti-war Masters of War, the men march in army helmets in front of a giant American flag. For There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Rachael McLaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis mime the song in gestures; Willis is a vivid physical comic, but the segment is hokey. The most genuinely uplifting aspect of Odetta is the singer’s powerful expressive, rich-toned voice - all by itself.
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Suspended Women, by Jacqulyn Buglisi, also has its amorphous qualities – but it creates a rich, dreamlike atmosphere suspended between fantasy and nightmare. Inspired by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican scholar and nun repressed by the Catholic church, Women presents a stage filled with 14 women, in corset tops and enormous skirts by A. Christina Giannini. The image is one of a crowd of rigidly gowned figures escaped from a Spanish court painting, swooping, arching, and collapsing in mounds of ruffled skirts to lushly melodramatic Ravel music (with interpolations by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain).
They seem yearning, frantic and trapped, isolated from each other though they move in a group. The four men who enter this hothouse fantasy are malevolent and over-powering; they choke the women, sling them to the floor – there are grappling moments that seem like rape, and others that are briefly, heatedly sensual. A woman in a gigantic white bridal gown is borne across the stage on someone’s shoulders, towering over the others. Women draws you inside a wild and trapped imagination.
Revelations, troupe founder Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece, remains the dance that largely defines the company, and the one which many people come to its performances to see – a kind of ritual for dancers and audience. That could have made Revelations a repetitive and empty trap. Yet the company keeps it razor sharp and glowing with emotion and meaning, an achievement in itself. On Friday, the opening I Been ‘Buked segment surged with sculptural power. Megan Jakel and Jamar Roberts gave a particularly yearning, moving performance of the Fix Me, Jesus duet, and Willis, Yannick Lebrun, and Michael Francis McBride were electrifying in Sinner Man. The finale was, as always, funny, exhilarating, and inspirational. Like any great dance, Revelations’ power is built into its structure and DNA.
If you go
What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
When: 2 p.m. Saturday – Program B: "Odetta," "Suspended Women"
8 p.m. Saturday – Program A: "Polish Pieces," "After the Rain," "Bad Blood"
3 p.m. Sunday – Program C: "Lift," "Awassa Astrige/Ostrich," "D-Man in the Waters"
"Revelations" will be performed at all shows
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 Southwest Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Info: $35 to $95 at BrowardCenter.org or 954-462-0222