main: July 2008 Archives
Foot in Mouth invited dancer, dance teacher, and writer Theresa Ruth Howard to reflect on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's fiftieth anniversary, which the company is currently in the middle of, from the inside out. Here she is:
In history books, memoirs, and biographies, the subjects of the photographs--peering out from so very long ago--appear to readers as we have come to know them: at home in their own skin, fully formed--not as they were in that moment, in that state of becoming.
We like to imagine that we can see a glint of knowing in their eyes. Can one feel history being made? I once met Muhammad Ali in an airport and had the opportunity to sit and talk with him for about twenty minutes. Oddly undisturbed, I asked him, "Did you know then? Did you have any idea what was to come?"
As a dancer I was always fascinated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, its founder and, of course, its dancers. I marveled at grainy photographs of Mr. Ailey in the studio with his dancers working on what might in the future be deemed a masterpiece. One has to wonder if they had any idea that they were churning the mortar for a foundation that would support fifty years of work--that with their bodies, sweat, and passion they were writing the first chapter of a legacy.
As a member of the New York dance community, I have taken class in the old, 61st Street building, wandered through the halls looking into classes, and befriended dancers, faculty members, and students. Though I was never a student or company member, the Ailey studios always felt like home--perhaps not my home, but at least that of a loving godparent. It was always okay to stop by unannounced, rest awhile, socialize, gossip a bit, or just hang. There was nothing like the end of the summer intensive performance, appropriately named the Summer Sizzler because the studio was so hot, you could sweat off a third of your body weight. It was always a hell (pun intended) of a show, and it always sold out!
I began teaching at the school about four years ago. It never quite dawned on me what exactly I had become a part of; I was just happy to have a gig. It was not until we moved into our new home, the glass palace on 55th Street and 9th Avenue, that it hit me: I was a part of history. The newness and the grandeur of our modern facility took many of us aback, and for a while we were lost in the space. We had to create new ways of interacting, new systems of finding and connecting with people who used to be just feet away and were now on a separate floor. Slowly and each in our own way, we grew acclimated to our new home and the palace became just our place.
Within the organization, we fringe people had been hearing rumblings about the impending fiftieth anniversary and to be prepared for a higher level of visibility. You can only imagine what that would mean in a glass building. The March 27th, 2008, launch of the anniversary brought the grandeur back full blast. The plans revealed that New York audiences would not have to wait until Christmas to see the company but that a season at BAM, in Brooklyn, was planned, as well as numerous Summerstage performances in several boroughs. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is marking its fiftieth the only way a dance organization could--with dance, dance, and more dance.
The first of numerous New York appearances was Ailey II at the Joyce this April. It is always a treat to see this part of the organization from the inside out, as the dancers are the harvest of the school, the physical representation of a through line. Associate director of Ailey II, Troy Powell, for example, has marked all the steps, beginning with his training at the school at age nine. He also danced in both first and second companies, and has now created for Ailey II "External Knot," which is indicative of the powerhouse work that Ailey has become known for.
Another bit of history on the Joyce stage was "When Dawn Comes..." by Christopher Huggins, who danced under Mr. Ailey. The piece brought the physically dynamic movement vocabulary and musically-infused virtuosity of Mr. Ailey's legacy to mind. The freedom and abandon with which the young dancers presented the work was refreshing, and Mr. Huggins should be applauded for creating such meaty material for them to work with and grow through. As a footnote, two of the Ailey II dancers, Yannik Lebrun and Rachael McLaren, have just been taken into the main company.
In the first
week of June, the Joyce Theater joined with the Brooklyn Academy of Music to
present a best-of program at BAM that featured the athletically playful "Golden
Section" from Twyla Tharp's full-length "Catherine Wheel"; Robert Battle's "Unfold,"
a beautifully simplified and visually entrancing duet that marks a stylistic
departure from the Ailey aesthetic; and, in subtle contrast, Camille A. Brown's
"Groove to Nobody's Business," a lighthearted character piece that any New York
City straphanger can relate to.
"The Groove to Nobody's Business" was another homage to Mr. Ailey in his penchant for creating character-driven works that not only highlighted his dancers' technical ability but their personalities and dramatic flair as well. Marilyn Banks with her lashes, Elizabeth Roxas with her swirling mane of hair, April Berry's aquiline nose, Gary Deloche with his charismatic sex appeal, the womanly earth goddess amazons of Judith Jamison and Donna Wood--these were the characters, the personalities, that kept us on seat's edge. With a battement, lateral T, or dart of the eyes, they thrilled and inspired us.
There is electricity in the air as these next few months unfold, but the announcement that sent shockwaves through the glass house that Judith build was that she has decided to step down (albeit in three years).
Gobsmacked would be the appropriate term for the
way most of us responded to the news. Immediately there were suppositions as to
who her successor would be. I was concerned about another point of history within the organization.
One of the amazing things that is little discussed is that the Alvin Ailey
American Dance Theater is run by women. It is a house of powerful, intelligent,
beautiful, nurturing, lionesses: Jamison (artistic director), Sharon Luckman (executive
director), Sylvia Waters (artistic director, Ailey II) and Denise Jefferson (director
of the school). Likewise, the heads of both the modern and ballet chairs are
also women (Ana Marie Forsythe, Jacqulyn Bulgisi, and Melanie Person, respectively).
You can almost feel the rounded curves of the organization's hips in the
understated way in which authority is demonstrated. These women are assertive
and not to be taken lightly while managing also to be highly approachable.
As a woman I find it empowering and fortifying to work in that anomalous environment, which in and of itself is historic. When I heard the news I felt a surge of trepidation, for there is a part of me that doesn't want that to change, and with the impending retirement of Ms. Jamison it's possible that it might.
One of the things that impressed me greatly when I first entered the organization was the intense commitment to Mr. Ailey's vision and philosophy and to the people who have been loyal to it: it is truly a family. I hope that whoever takes the helm upholds and continues this principle and spirit.
For five decades the Ailey company has made us fall in love with it over and over again, and from the looks of it we have years more to look forward to that feeling.
Howard, a former
dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Armitage Gone! Dance, teaches at the
Ailey School and internationally. She's a regular contributor to Dance Magazine
and other publications.
Photo of Camille Brown's "The Groove to Nobody's Business" by Paul Kolnik for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
I know, I know, Foot in Mouth has been experiencing a time warp lately. Here, for example, are some thoughts on a ballet I saw more than two weeks ago.
In his "Goldberg Variations," to the complete Bach score, Jerome Robbins concludes most of his own variations with a flock of dancers rushing in from the wings as the dancers already there finish up. It's a nice touch, a little joke about the dance's tag-team structure, which works kind of like the camera in Richard Linklater's "Slacker," tracking one person (and story) around a corner only to take off after somebody else. Bach's variations don't point to a theme, as in the conventional theme-and-variations arrangement, so much as backwards and forwards to one another, and Robbins aims to do the same.
Depending on your point of view, the result is ballet ad nauseum or ballet ad infinitum. Critics have been divided on this question since the dance's debut in 1971. Arlene Croce dubbed the New York City Ballet work "ninety minutes of hard labor"; other critics, including me, have experienced it as waves on waves of delicious invention. When the performance is good, each time the dancers arrive from the wings I am excited--and grateful--for more. Only the middle of "The Goldberg Variations" sags.
But the piece's power to sustain attention and delight depends on the dancers knowing how to fill the space--front and back. In recognition of Bach's architectural splendor, the choreographic configurations--circles inside of circles, folk dance lines, zigzags, and many walking formations--count for at least as much as the individual steps. Negative space is especially charged. In one number, a group advances from the wing upstage while another faces them as they walk backwards into the opposite wing downstage. The dancers may move almost as casually as people on the street, but the courtliness of the occasion is palpable: the regal advance, the gracious retreat, and the electricity of the space between.
Except for the three romantic pas de deux in the dance's second half, the steps are plain throughout. But for plain not to devolve into meager or dull--for the movement to animate the space as Bach has animated time in linking past variation to future--the dancers need to relinquish the customary forward pitch of the body that Balanchinean speed demands and feel their backs from crown to foot: the heel's pressure against the floor, the flex of the haunches, the expansive shallow in the upper back, the tautness of the stalk of neck.
In one of the short archival videos introducing each Robbins evening this season, we see the choreographer working with a young Damian Woetzel on the rumba solo in "Fancy Free." At one point, the dancer goes from being curved to the floor in profile to upright facing front. Woetzel makes that transition like the sun rising from the ocean. Robbins tells him to unfurl the spine like a fern. He wants the drama not along the horizon but up and down. He often wants that.
If the "Goldberg" dancers imagined themselves floating belly up in cool water on a hot day, the submerged skin taking on its own temperature and character, or riding a bike fast enough to feel the breeze blowing off their backs, they'd do better by this dance, which is only really alive when the back is.
The New York City Ballet will perform "The Goldberg Variations" once more this year, on Tuesday July 22 at the Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center upstate. Longtime Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt will present a pre-performance talk at 7 pm. (Performance at 8 pm.) Visit the SPAC website for more info.
Photo by Paul Kolnik for the New York City Ballet.
"It's so internal!" my friend Amanda says with admiration about Neil Greenberg's "Really Queer Dance with Harps," which premiered a couple of weeks ago at Dance Theater Workshop. One move--a series of changements on half-point--reminded her of a schizophrenic she'd seen outside a hospital in Rome jangling his insides with stiff little jumps.
The insides of Greenberg's dancers are not at risk: they inhabit
a whorl of trunk as sturdy as a tree's. But
their bare galumphing feet--smacking the floor exactly as you're taught not to in ballet class--resound with social ineptitude and a
rough flamboyance. They call to mind Frankenstein's
monster (on a good day).
Meanwhile, the arms are socially aware--grace notes of affect, as are the flowers in the hair of boys and girls alike. Fragility and delicacy, self-declaration and tribal identification, flutter on the body's periphery as if the soul and its accessories were butterflies. In one of "Really Queer Dance's" several distinct phrases, one hand grazes the vulnerable crease in the hip where an angel forced Jacob to testify, while the other reaches overhead like a weather vane or the paw of a disco queen feeling out the scene.
Only the gaze enters the world naked--shed of inwardness. Or it tries to, anyway. Eyes askew in the head and head askew on the spine as if the effort caused all sorts of distortions, the dancers peer at the wall of darkness that separates us from them without recognition, or seduction, in the look.
You know those people who find fault with one lover after
another for years on end without it ever occurring to them that the problem
might lie with their conception of love? Well, the dance equivalent is the false notion that dance is the most unmediated of arts, the
least artful of arts, a quasi-art that delivers its truths straight. People who
insist they really do like dance, it's only a matter of finding the right dance, are often seeking sheer physicality! sheer feeling! sheer
pleasure! But precisely because dance
is physical, which, yes, is tangled
up in our minds with pleasure and feeling, it can't only be physical, emotional,
pleasurable, or it wouldn't be art, it would just be body, feeling, sensation. On the other hand, it has no choice but to present even introspection on the surface. All it has is surface, which does double duty as inside and out.
Greenberg homes in on this poignant paradox, which, he discovers, life shares with dance. His subject is invariably an inner life that we can only approach via surfaces--an inner life made up, in fact, of surfaces, the detritus of the everyday.
"Really Queer Dance with Harps" may be no more inward than previous dances--as usual, each dancer is alone with others, never touching (until the goofy coda) and never acknowledging anyone in any conventional sense, and as usual the dancers share a family of gestures that means something particular to each of them. But here those family members are especially individual. (The eight highly trained, wonderfully idiosyncratic dancers are Ellen Barnaby, Nicholas Duran, Johnni Durango, Christine Elmo, Paige Martin, Luke Miller, Antonio Ramos, and Colin Stilwell.)
Until recently, Greenberg devised his choreography on his own body, videotaping himself improvising, then editing what he saw for his dancers' consumption. For "Really Queer Dance with Harps" and its companion on the program, the equally glorious though short "Quartet with Three Gay Men," he decided to have the dancers invent most of the phrases. The effect is to intensify the scene's casual-seeming, non-syncopated character. The phrases seem more than ever like floating idées fixes, snagging on a person like a plastic bag on a rosebush. Sometimes they become assimilated into her style of being, and sometimes they don't.
"Really Queer Dance with Harps" is low key and in no hurry. The movement has more feeling and lusciousness than the Cunningham vocabulary it grew out of. (At this juncture, too many of Cunningham's dancers treat steps as if they were a task assigned them, above which they can smile at each other unbothered. Cunningham should ask them to commit all of themselves to what they're doing.) And three golden harpists massage Zeena Parkins' mercurial music into their heart-shaped harps to call to mind the heart. But the dance does share Cunningham's aversion to the conventional dramatic arc--and the present he lets you sink into and pull back from again and again.
In this, it's like life, too.
For more, here's the
esteemed Roslyn Sulcas' excellent review for the New York Times and my friend Nancy Dalva's Danceviewtimes post. For the full monty of previews and views, try Dance Theater Workshop's web site (which has failed to include this blog as well as danceviewtimes, for example, on
its blog roll. Sigh. Why even have a blog roll if it's so strictly self-serving?)
Photo by Julia Cervantes for Dance Theater Workshop.
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