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Juilliard Dance

Published: December 6, 2004
Category: review

An Electrifying Debut: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

By Rachel Straus

Known for electrifying stages worldwide, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought maximum voltage to City Center last Friday night with the company’s premiere of Donald Byrd’s “Burlesque.” In Mr. Byrd’s dance satire, eight Ailey dancers pose as vaudeville-era performers, shooting out from a line of chairs as though their limbs are charged with dynamite. Created to seven Louis Armstrong recordings, “Burlesque” includes deliriously frenzied moments.

It found its most brilliant ones in dancer Asha Thomas. Outfitted in Ms. Sosa’s stylishly vampy costumes, Ms. Thomas takes Mr. Byrd’s choreography — hurdy-gurdy hip rolls, wind-up doll turns, and hysterically animated facial muggings — beyond slapstick to poignancy. Through her thickly painted makeup, Ms. Thomas shows what the other dancers did not — a person behind the pump-and-grind performer, the humanity behind the choreographed absurdity. Ms. Thomas’s performance stood out because she acted rather than overacted.

“Burlesque,” in turn, became more than a spoof on the strip tease and a celebration of backstage catfights (between semi-clad divas); more than a romp through such popular dance forms as the Charleston (executed in warp speed by four couples). It hinted at the unspecific but omnipresent melancholy in these fast melodies.

Dancer Dwana Adiaha Smallwood created similarly inspiring moments in Alvin Ailey’s signature work “Revelations.” In the section “Wade in the Waters,” Ms. Smallwood’s spine rippled with the equivalent fluency of the undulating 40-foot long swathes of silk, resembling an ocean behind her small dancing frame. Ms. Smallwood’s long arms reached for the floor as though teleporting earthly energies. Her face projected confident joy. She blazed through the 1960 work that she has performed for more than a decade as if it was her debut performance.

Dancers Linda-Denise Fisher Harrell and Clifton Brown generated a different level of awe in “Treading” by choreographer Elisa Monte with music by Steve Reich. Long, sinuous, and plainly beautiful, Both Mr. Brown and Ms. Harrell’s bodies are in themselves works of art. To see them pass through back bends of perfect circularity, strike sky-high leg extensions that remain indefinitely aloft, and approach every moment as though they are birds soaring effortlessly in flight is like witnessing the evolution of a new creature — certainly a divine one.

Dancer Clyde Archer, who performed in Alvin Ailey’s “Night Creature” and in his “Revelations,” also made eyes widen. Mr. Archer may have joined the company last year, but his ease with the Ailey style — a mixture of jazz, modern, ballet; social and folk dance — seems indigenous to every particle of his being. Archer joyfully mamboed, pirouetted, and sauntered through both dances. His approach to movement is as graceful as it is dynamic. At City Center until January 2nd, Archer and the other stunning members of the Alvin American Dance Theater will keep the audiences’ juices flowing. Certainly, they will help light up the New Year.

“Burlesque” will be performed again December 7 at 7 p.m.; December 11 & 22 at 8 p.m. (W. 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, 212-581-1212).

The New York Sun

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