Dec. 2, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater swept on stage at New York’s City Center exuding warmth, radiating brilliance and lighting up the night. If this opening night of its five-week winter season is any indication, audiences are in for a real treat.
With a warm welcome and an anecdote-laced introduction, Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle kicked the evening off by honoring philanthropic partner BNY Mellon for its longtime support of Ailey education programs. After Battle shared a brief tidbit about the first piece on the program and gave a shout-out to its choreographer David Parsons, the curtain went up on the solo “Caught.”
A lone dancer stands in a circle of light on an otherwise darkened stage. Bare-chested, wearing white pants, legs akimbo, arms reaching out, Michael Francis McBride explores the space. Suddenly, the stage goes dark. Dancer and circle of light reappear. They’ve moved. All goes black again. These light and dark intervals repeat again and again. Each time they grow shorter. The light flickers faster and faster, like a strobe light, until all we see are snapshots of McBride jumping, leaping, walking and dancing on air. The audience gasps. Caught is an awe-inspiring display of theatrical magic created by the marriage of technology, technique and split-second timing.
That was only the beginning of an evening punctuated by star-studded honorary chairs actor Chadwick Boseman, star of the James Brown biopic “Get on Up,” and singer-actor Brandy Norwood, each introducing the two other works on the program. First there was the world premier of choreographer Ronald K. Brown’s “Open Door,” set to the compelling Latin rhythms of Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Then there was Alvin Ailey’s uplifting masterpiece, “Revelations.” This time dancers shared the stage with live musicians and singers.
From the moment Linda Celeste Sims saunters onstage in “Open Door,” matching the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Arturo O’Farrill’s orchestra with fluid, undulating moves, it is clear she is dancing in, not to, the music. Matthew Rushing follows, picking up the beat. Soon, others join in. With various exits and entrances, dancers form shifting combinations of groupings—all-male and all-female, mixed and couples. Their movement and fast-paced footwork mirrors the music. The stage becomes a dance floor. It’s almost impossible to sit still as Brown’s “Open Door” pays homage to a magical marriage of cultures.
And what would an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opening night be without “Revelations,” especially with live music and singers? Suddenly this masterpiece assumes a new dimension. Those of us who know it well can recall the time live music was the norm, not the exception. Opening night reminds us just how special that is. Jamar Roberts’ performance of “I Wanna Be Ready” is an excellent example. Suddenly the solo becomes a duet between dancer and singers. With live singers responding to Roberts’ timing, each spiraling decent to the floor or coccyx balance yearning toward heaven takes on added meaning. Because this is true of each of the many sections of “Revelations,” what is already a masterpiece becomes richer still.
Opening night galas, with all their glitz and glamor, serve several important functions. On one hand, they celebrate supporters, friends and fans. (They also raise money. In this case, the company raised $2.5 million to support new works, scholarships to the Ailey School and Ailey’s extensive educational programs for young people.) On the other hand, they whet our appetite for the surprises the season holds in store. Judging from the Dec. 2 opening night, this five-week holiday season promises to be the gift that keeps on giving.
In addition to “Open Door,” the season calendar includes world premiers of MacArthur “Genius” Kyle Abraham’s “Untitled America: First Movement” and Robert Battle’s “Awakening,” his first piece on the company since becoming artistic director five years ago. There are company premiers of Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera and new productions of Ailey masterpieces “Blues Suite,” “Cry” and “Love Songs.” There is also a new production of bold hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris’ provocative and timely work “Exodus,” plus Battle’s powerful “No Longer Silent,” Talley Beatty’s brilliant “Toccata” and Judith Jamison’s sensual duet “A Case of You,” Christopher Wheeldon’s ephemeral “After the Rain Pas de Deux,” Hofesh Shecter’s “Uprising” and Brown’s masterful, soul-stirring, praise dances “Grace” and “Four Corners.” And if that isn’t enough, on Dec. 31, the company pays tribute to Jamison, Ailey star and artistic director emerita.
For more information, visit www.alvinailey.org.