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Bejart’s Spandex `Firebird’ Gets Demure With Ailey

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on December 4, 2007.


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Clifton Brown from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearses for Maurice Bejart’s “Firebird” in New York on Aug. 21, 2007. Performances of the show will continue at the New York City Center through Dec. 31. Photographer: Eduardo Patino/Alvin Ailey Dance Theater via Bloomberg News

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) — Seeing the late Maurice Bejart’s “Firebird,” the centerpiece of the gala that opened the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s five-week season at the New York City Center on Nov. 28, you’d never guess that the French choreographer was celebrated and reviled for works that were spectacular and scandalous. Unless, of course, you expected to see a ballerina in a red-feathered tutu in the title role rather than Bejart’s choice of a gorgeous young man sheathed in shiny, fetchingly cut vermilion spandex.

Bejart uses a condensed version of the Stravinsky score first (and probably best) choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1910, but he devised an entirely new libretto. Rejecting the Russian folk tale usually matched with the music, he presents a group of revolutionaries outfitted in camouflage. They are prodded into action (against a never-specified enemy) by the title character, who seems to preach a gospel of love undercut, where necessary, by violence. When this Firebird dies of exhaustion, another arrives, phoenix-like, to replace him, so that the vision of an ideal world is never extinguished.

Choreographed in 1970, this “Firebird” is, thematically, very much of its time. The piece uses a classical-ballet vocabulary (rather than the jazz-inflected modern dance that is the Ailey’s default mode), and the company’s versatile and personable dancers do well with it. Yet the work is so neatly and conventionally constructed, it looks old-fashioned.

`Saddle Up!’

Other new additions to the company’s repertory will surface in the course of the season. So far, I’ve seen “Saddle Up!” about which the less said, the better. Choreographed by Fredrick Earl Mosley to an engaging composite score involving Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, and Yo-Yo Ma, it’s a puerile take on already hokey Wild West themes. The dancers were as sassy as could be under the dismal circumstances.

Even if its repertory generally leaves much to be desired, the Ailey has some remarkable assets. It has the savviest, most financially productive board of directors of any dance company I know and an artistic director, Judith Jamison, who is unafraid of running a tight ship according to her vision. Jamison also boasts a theatrical presence and timing that have only expanded since her dancing days.

Judith, Judith, Judith

As she emceed the gala, even her costume added to her effect: shaved head, red specs, outsize dangling earrings, a silver necklace as formidable as a breastplate and a floor- sweeping black monk’s robe lined with red, the traditional Ailey accent color, visible when her bold stride made it flap open.

And the dancers themselves are unbeatable. It seems almost arbitrary to single out a few favorites featured in the gala program.
The young Clifton Brown was pure poetry in the title role of “Firebird.” Jamison’s recent restaging of the solo Ailey himself choreographed to Duke Ellington’s “Reflections in D” showcased Matthew Rushing, a 15-year veteran with the troupe. He’s a small, exquisitely proportioned dancer whose bare arms and torso would be a credit to the most rigorous gym and a sweet, gentle face. His technique is formidable; his style, lyrical.

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Matthew Rushing from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearses for “Reflections in D” in New York on Aug. 21, 2007. Performances of the show will continue at the New York City Center through Dec. 31. Photographer: Eduardo Patino/Alvin Ailey Dance Theater via Bloomberg News

In Ailey’s signature piece, “Revelations,” Linda Celeste Sims and her husband, Glenn Allen Sims, give an unsurpassable account of the rapt adagio duet “Fix Me, Jesus.” They displayed an intimate rapport with their subject (an oppressed or imperfect soul seeking help), the spiritual to which it’s choreographed and each other (those phenomenal balances are possible only through deep mutual trust).

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Linda and Glenn Sims from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearse for “Revelations” in New York in this undated handout photo. Performances of the show will continue at the New York City Center through Dec. 31. Photographer: Andrew Eccles/Alvin Ailey Dance Theater via Bloomberg News

Their unwavering focus, which excluded even the smallest extraneous movement, epitomized the observation offered by the evening’s guest of honor, Russell Simmons: “Dance is living prayer.”

At 131 W. 55th St. through Dec. 31. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.alvinailey.org.

© 2007 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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