REFLECTIONS ON AILEY@CITY CENTER DECEMBER 2014

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Robert Battle continues to infuse the Ailey legacy with exciting new work from choreographers from outside and within the Ailey tradition.

Of the latter, Matthew Rushing’s Odetta pays tribute to the American folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta Holmes. This world premiere showcases the talented company, allowing each dancer a small feature in a solo or duet. The astounding Hope Boykin anchors the cast as she channels the central figure of Odetta. Ms. Boykin’s lush phrasing, coupled with her athletic and precise execution of movement serve her dramatic flair and magnetic presence. Rachel McClaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis provide some comic relief in A Hole in the Bucket. McClaren plays straight to Willis’ rubbery and playful demeanor. The Cool Water duet, danced by Sarah Dailey and Jermaine Terry is exquisite. Rushing demonstrates his skills as a master choreographer here, employing Dailey and Terry’s intertwining long limbs and striking lines to beautiful, sensual effect. Cool Water became my favorite moment of the piece after my second viewing.

Rushing’s design team (costumes: Dante Baylor, Lighting: Andrew Vasquez, Scenic: Travis George, Artwork: Stephen Alcorn) have taken1960’s folk revival as inspiration in their work. Odetta has a folksy, patch-work quality and color palette that at times feels at odds with the tone of the piece. In weaker moments, it looks like a revival of “Hair”.  It would be interesting to see what this piece would reveal stripped bare, as the majority of Rushing’s movement is so strong. The piece employs four large benches with a cut-out pattern. The benches are used conventionally and help to break up the space, but they are quite clunky and don’t surprise or add to the piece in any way. I look forward to seeing more of Matthew Rushing’s work for the Ailey Company.

Hofesh Shechter’s The Uprising was a bold and excellent choice for Mr. Battle to present the talents of the Ailey men. I disagree with Alastair’s Macaulay’s dismissal of this piece as cheap and tedious. I find much of Mr. Shechter’s movement beautiful and original, particularly in a repeated run that crouches low to the ground as an arm unfurls from the elbow. The men glide impossibly close to the ground as they move across the stage in groups. Jamar Roberts stands out here as his long limbs and commanding presence is spellbinding. Whereas Macaulay attempts to reduce the piece to a “message”, I am more inclined to focus on the questions The Uprising raises and the discussions that may evolve out of it.

Shechter complicates and destabilizes the physical binary of violence/tenderness with performative gestures such as slapping, cradling, and the all too familiar chokehold. The man stand in a circle and pat each other in the back, one by one. The contact becomes increasingly forceful and a pat on the back mutates into a slap on the neck, which triggers a scrum-like brawl. How do tenderness and violence the overlap? What separates the two? A man extends a fist into the air, and is lowered by another. Men grab each other’s faces and press their skulls together, tightly bound in a complicated mathematic. The men run across the stage as if fleeing. They wait impatiently in groups. In the end, a man holds a reg flag as he is lifted by the group. Is it a symbol of revolution? Or a red flag as a warning? Or both?

Jacqulyn Buglisi’s Suspended Women demonstrates the marvelous technical diversity and dramatic sweep of this amazing company of women. Having just finished the book DANCING WOMEN: Female Bodies On Stage by Sally Banes, I was fascinated by this piece in a new way, having seen it before. Ms. Buglisi employs a visually charged and theatrically sophisticated aesthetic. The production values at work in Suspended Woman are exquisite. The piece begins with a group of women who appear to be hanging like marionettes upstage at the cyclorama. They stand erect and slowly progress downstage as a unit. Adorned in beautiful hoop skirts, they float as a community toward the audience and become individuals as they melt individually to the floor. They are women en masse perhaps as combination of sisters, mothers,daughters and friends. The music is soft and the lighting is gorgeous. They vuluptuously turn through each other and hang over a precipice. Their relationship to the space around them is quietly conflicted and wrought with anxiety. They gather longingly toward the DSR corner with anticipation. A woman falls and the groups surrounds her, frozen. Linda Celeste Holmes shatters and breaks her body into angles as the music descends in similar fashion. Women rush and swirl through the air, to collapse on the floor and rise again. They are highlighted briefly as individuals, but are then absorbed back into the group again. They struggle for singularity but then are swallowed back into the community. They are organized and pulled by some outside force, rather than actively moving. Some of the women even seem to be imprisoned in their own dresses. They fall to the floor, and the weight of the dress holds them down while legs float out from underneath. I find Buglisi’s work interesting because of the manner in which she works with the Graham principles, but achieves a softer, velvety look in the way the dancers manage their limbs. She is unafraid of the dramatic and operatic and boldly charts the heightened states of being that the theatre can demand.

A man interrupts the space and the women scatter, throwing their skirts up as if howling out an alarm. The music is boldly dramatic as more men enter. The men wear dress pants and blazers with no shirts. Looking closely, these are beautiful costumes with cut-outs in the armpits and lots of beautiful detail.They move broadly and heavily, providing a flat counterpoint to the sensual curves Buglisi gives the women’s phrases. They invade the space and the women react with terror. The men mostly manipulate the women in sections that find her trying to escape him or display him slowly mold her. When lifted, the women often become frozen or hang as if half-dead. This is a world in which the male presence dominates and short-circuits the female. The masculine company shatters the female community and  renders individual females frozen.

The men leave as a high note on the piano repeats. The women revisit a phrase from earlier and reassemble themselves as a community. They dance in a circle and struggle within their bodies as they turn around themselves and are thrown off-center. Another woman falls and the others look on her as they form a diagonal line and are pulled in a diagonal line from DSR to USL. The music begins to resolve and Buglisi gives the women a more virtuosic section in two groups with jumps. Here the women defy gravity rather than become absorbed by it. They advance and recede in diagonal lines, which returns us to the idea of ladies in waiting. Some women expect, some hesitate, and then as a group they turn to face front. The women travel in place as the men are reintroduced quietly. This time, the men cross behind and in between the women while the women step lightly in place. Some men remove their jackets and hold them close to the women. A man places his jacket on a woman’s shoulders. There is some type of secret exchange, a implicit peace agreement or subordination that occurs here. The men exit and move on, but the women are traveling without moving. They are suspended women.

I did miss the long lines and beauty of Alicia Graf Mack, who is on leave this season. Other than that minor disappointment, the Ailey company was a joy to behold.

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