Ailey @ CLE 4/26/2019

On Friday we went to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Playhouse Square and saw four dances, Shelter, The Call, Revelations, and Stack-Up.

Shelter is a piece about homelessness that uses 6 women dancers, voice-overs, and an all-percussion score. You may protest that a piece about homelessness can never be more than victim porn, but as choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her collaborators assemble its components, Shelter builds oh-so-nicely to engage the most cynical audience member.

The easiest thing to describe about Shelter is the voice-overs. They begin with a description of a homeless man that the speaker sees every day on his way to work. “He’s crazy,” says the speaker and “Something should be done to get him up off the street,” but the speaker quickly progresses to an accelerating, step-by-step description of how homelessness “can happen to you, too,” leaving you “between a rock and a hard place at the intersection of reduced resources and reverberating rage.”

The recorded music for Shelter, which contributes so much to the building momentum, is by Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn, who is no stranger to big time theater (he was master drummer for the Broadway premiere of Lion King) or social justice projects (he’s well-known in his native Jamaica for his score for the activist documentary ( Bad Friday). Wedderburn’s score for Shelter is a master class in the language of percussion, how a drum roll, a cadence on a high hat, varying rhythmic pulses, and silence all work together to draw the audience through the narrative.

The dancing in Shelter begins with the obvious movement vocabulary of victim porn but it gradually builds to an unexpected conclusion. The dancers are discovered lying in a pile of bodies; they rise awkwardly; they scratch, shiver, twitch, and sink to the floor again; they suddenly lash out at the air around them in reverberating rage. But then the dancers begin to move purposely toward downstage left with a rhythmic pulse that grows stronger and stronger. The dancers freeze, the audience applauds, but there’s more. The voice over mentions Hurricane Katrina among other natural disasters that left many homeless. “The earth is talking. Are you listening?” Not only can it happen to you, it’s happening now, and the last dancer’s pointed finger singles you out.

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All photos of Shelter by Paul Kolnik

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown has received much positive attention for his ability to incorporate traditional West African movement into a contemporary concert dance format but we’ve seen only two of his pieces for ourselves, Malpaso’s performance of Brown’s por que segues? Why you follow? and the Ailey company’s performance of Ife / My Heart. Both made us want to see more, so when we learned that Ailey would be performing Brown’s The Call at some but not all of their Cleveland performances, we took care to go on the correct night.

Like many of Brown’s pieces, The Call is in 3 distinctly different sections, the first of which is set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 6 in G Major. That might sound like a disastrous choice since it’s usually performed on organ, the instrument where rhythm goes to die, but the recording Brown has chosen — with Chris Thile on Mandolin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, and Edgar Meyer on Bass –is an uncommonly fresh performance on instruments that support rhythmic dancing. The 3 women are in gowns, an unexpected costume choice. The loose-fitting suits that the 2 men wear are similarly unexpected. Won’t they mask the rhythmic movement of the torsos? But the movement in the first section doesn’t use the torso the way African dance typically does. Instead it’s ballet-like with turned out legs, turns that end in suspension, loosely executed leaps and arms that sometimes flow and sometimes are held in formal ballet shapes, all lit in softly glowing golds and bronzes like a baroque concert hall.

Call 1
Like a baroque concert hall; photo by Paul Kolnik

In an interview, Brown said he set the second section of The Call to music by the Mary Lou Williams Trio — with Williams on piano, Ronnie Boykins on Bass, and Jo Jones on drums – because Alvin Ailey loved that music. In the same interview, Brown refers to the long time partnership between Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade, a partnership that’s evoked by the iconic pose with elbows interlocked that 2 of the dancers strike early in the second section. For the second section, the women continue to wear their gowns but the men have removed their suit coats. The movement has much in common with the movement in the first and third sections – wrapped arms and suspended turns — but the dancing is jazzy in keeping with the music and the red and blue lighting suggests a night club.

Call 2
An iconic pose; photo by Paul Kolnik

Music for the third section, The Love, might sound like tribal percussion and African singing recorded in Lagos or Accra but it is in fact by Yao Ababio and Kofi Osei Williams, African-Americans based in Brooklyn, the same city where Brown and his company, Evidence, are based. We are continually surprised by the voluminous and timely cultural exchange between West Africa and North America’s Atlantic Seaboard.

Much of the movement in the third section of The Call is similar to that in the first and second sections but the rhythmically undulant torsos and the outdoor lighting give it a distinctly African rather than African-American feel. As the dancers wrap their arms around their torsos in one direction and then the other, we finally see the reference to Ailey’s choreography in the Wade in the Water section of Revelations and as the lighting fades to silhouette and the dancers raise their arms allongé we are irresistibly reminded of the iconic opening of Revelations. Brown is uncommonly successful at incorporating traditional West African movement into contemporary concert dance, but in The Call he honors Ailey, who did it first.

Call 3
Between Africa and Brooklyn; photo by Paul Kolnik

In the 59 years since its premiere, Revelations has become familiar to dance audiences, the choreographic equivalent of comfort food, but it still has a power, even for 2 pagans like us. Watching Friday’s performance, a moment in the duet Fix Me, Jesus jumped out at us as particularly apt. She slowly revolves in place while he walks around her, hands off but present. Was it the dancers, Sarah Daley-Perdomo and Jamar Roberts? Or was it our realization that any successful partnership, whether with a deity or between 2 people involves a lot of just being present?

Rev 3
Revelations ‘Buked; photo by Gert Krautbauer

Finding Friday’s performance of the iconic solo, I Wanna Be Ready, strangely flat, we searched for a reason by watching YouTube videos and found ourselves reflecting on how a dance consisting of little more than a curriculum of Pilates and modern dance exercises is rendered urgent and personal by the solo’s central metaphor: a dancer preparing to dance is equated with a person living a righteous life and ultimately preparing for death. Yes, I Wanna Be Ready can still move us, but something was missing from Friday’s performance.

The desperate exertions of the 3 men in Sinner Man consistently make it the showiest piece in Revelations. We always watch carefully to see if the 3rd sinner nails his pirouettes, which Michael Francis McBride did on Friday looking for all the world like his immortal soul were at stake.

Rev 2
Sinner Man; photo by Nan Melville

We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Ailey’s loving, humorous look at the church women who appear at the end of Revelations with their fans fluttering and their feet planted wide. Alvin Ailey never forgot where he came from and in remembering he made his masterpiece, Revelations.

Rev 1
The church ladies; photo by Paul Kolnik

Friday’s program began with a colorful and committed restaging by Masazumi Chaya of Stack-Up, Talley Beatty’s cautionary tale about the streets, discos, and drugs.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was presented in partnership with DanceCleveland at the KeyBank State Theatre from April 26 – 28. We watched them on Friday 4/26/2019.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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