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Juilliard Dance

Published: December 9, 2015
Category: review

New Ailey Work Paints a Terrifying Dystopia

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK–The long-awaited new work for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater by Robert Battle, who took the artistic helm of this renowned company in 2011, did not disappoint. Awakenings, which premiered on Dec. 4 at New York City Center, begins as feverishly as it ends. The work’s intensity is typical Ailey. What is atypical, with respect to Ailey’s vast repertoire, is Battle’s construction of an unremitting dystopia, especially in light of his choice of such a beatific title. For Awakenings awakens visions of mass shootings, imprisonment, and incessant, collective fear. As the siren-like wails and percussive blasts of John Mackey’s Wine-Dark Sea (2014) emerge from the speakers, 12 dancers enter and exit, sprinting in a circle from and to the wings amid flashes of light (designed by Al Crawford). Is this a night raid? The Apocalypse? The atmosphere grows increasingly terrifying; the dancers’ intensity is a natural parallel to the score’s thunderous pace and power. They hurl their bodies like projectiles, hunch and cower en masse, effect military line-ups, and lunge in a flock formation, while sailing their arms in unison. Later, they become hysterical hopping marionettes as if manipulated by an unseen force. Each of these movement motifs could form the core of a single dance, and that’s where Battle gets in trouble. He has too much on his mind, as if he has been storing up ideas in the four years since he last choreographed. How, for instance, is the soloist—the tall and elegant Jamar Roberts—meant to relate to the whole? Dressed, like the others, in Jon Taylor’s pajama-like, loose-fitting white silk shirts and pants, Roberts might be a preacher leading his flock out of its huddled grouping. Yet he also is presented like a guerilla captain, taking his charges on a belly-to-the-ground crawl. At times, he becomes a prisoner, trapped by his encircling flock. Then we see him on two feet, raging: his muscular body shaking as if trying to break free of shackles.

Cast in Awakenings. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Sometimes the dancers acknowledge Roberts as one of their own, other times they ignore him, even as he freaks out just a few feet away. Perhaps Battle was incorporating Martha Graham’s tendency to divide the stage into separate temporalities. But Graham used set pieces that directly related to each character’s struggle to divide the space; Awakenings uses only changing lighting plots. Perhaps they relate to different sections of the dance—the key moments always seem to focus on Roberts—but this viewer failed to understand their significance.


Also on the program was Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005), performed by the magisterial husband and wife team Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims. The celebrated female role in Rain was originated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, who molded her wraith-like frame onto Jock Soto’s muscularity, rendering herself into a flaming aureole. The two burned, but in a manner that was not sexual. In this interpretation, the Sims evoke an idealized romantic male-female partnership through sharing each other’s weight and his controlled lifting of her body above his head. It’s a beautiful rendering, but it lacks the strange frisson of the original.

Opening the program was Toccata, a seven-minute excerpt of the late Talley Beatty’s full-length jazz dance Come and Get the Beauty of it Hot (1960). Its crisp performance notwithstanding, Beatty, known for temper tantrums, would not have approved of his work being so abridged. The evening closed with the Ailey masterwork Revelations (1960), performed live by a chamber orchestra and chorus, under the baton of Nedra Old-Neal. Now this is the way to see Ailey’s masterwork—hearing vocal soloists Ella Mitchell and Jeffrey Lesley belt, riff, and drawl the refrain “Wade in the Water” (from the titular baptismal section). The dancers responded by belting, riffing, and drawling through their marvelous bodily instruments. A rousing symbiosis of dance and music emerged, sending the audience to its feet.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues its performances at New York City Center until January 3, 2016.

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