The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater launched its three-week homecoming season at City Center Theatre with a bang on Dec. 1 with what appears to be a gift that will keep on giving through Dec. 19.
Opening night, AAADT Artistic Director Robert Battle welcomed the enthusiastic audience, jokingly referencing what had become the standard medium for watching dance during the pandemic, saying at first he wasn’t sure if he was watching a giant
Zoom screen so he was careful to make sure he was as well dressed below the waist as he was from the waist up. Of course, all doubts were dispelled by an audience clearly delighted to see the AAADT in living color. The Ailey dancers were greeted with enthusiastic applause as they zipped through a program that included Battle’s delightful “Ella” accompanied by the scat singing of Grammy-nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, the forward-looking “Love Stories finale,” Alvin Ailey’s tribute to jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker, “Bird Lives!” performed by Clifton Brown accompanied by talented young dancers from the Ailey School, not to mention Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations.”
In fact, the AAADT’s entire three-week season seems designed to maintain the celebratory tone set on opening night as the company celebrates Robert Battle’s 10th anniversary as artistic director, the 50th anniversary of Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece “Cry,” the performance of hip-hop pioneer Rennie Harris’ phenomenal “Lazarus,” featured in the documentary “AILEY” in advance of a national broadcast premiere on PBS American Masters Jan. 11 and, last but not least, dancer Jamar Roberts’ transition from commanding presence as an Ailey dancer to the company’s resident choreographer.
The Amsterdam News caught up with two of those who assist in the acknowledgement of these milestones to discuss their significance, AAADT’s new Resident Choreographer Jamar Roberts and Jacqueline Green who will perform that Alvin Ailey’s 1971 masterpiece “Cry,” dedicated to “all Black women everywhere––especially our mothers,” which also established the incomparable Judith Jamison as a tour-de-force and “an unquestionable diva of the dance.” And, while the feeling of her performance is forever etched in our memory, those who have followed her have done so with her blessing. Ailey dancer Jacqueline Green is one and she performs “Cry” this season. As a dancer who joined Ailey in 2011 after a stint with Ailey II, and whose track record includes critical acclaim and an array of awards, including a Princess Grace Foundation-USA dance fellowship, and a “Bessie” Award nomination for sustained achievement, Green’s vibrant personality and technical brilliance have always made her performances of Ailey’s masterpiece something special.
Judith Jamison has said of dancers who take on this amazing piece that they must be women “who can carry its weight. They must be able to fill the stage from the very beginning. They must understand their individuality and dig down deep to deliver something new to the audience. The secret self has to come out. There’s no hiding place. Technically, they must be polished because the dance involves several techniques. And they must use their dignity, vulnerability and passion.” But, above all, she has said, “They also must breathe.”
During a recent interview Green clearly agreed. Recalling the first time she performed, she says, “I learned the dance from Linda Celeste-Sims and Masazumi Chaya and was coached by Ms. Judith Jamison. I have years of notes to pull from. I think the biggest thing Ms. Jamison instilled in us is that it’s not just a dance, every movement in it tells a story. You must make sure every step has a meaning.”
Green says each of the solo’s three sections has a meaning. “The first section is one of the most difficult because it’s literally the start of the whole ballet. It sets the tone. You change characters throughout the entire section and your one prop, the long scarf, is an extension of the women’s story. Sometimes it’s a crown, sometimes a shawl, sometimes a washcloth to scrub floors with. Each section carries its own message. The second section is where the dancer gets to truly release. This is where you could cry. It is heavy and it is about sorrow and grief, and you have to pull on things that help you physicalize that pain. Then, there is the third section,” she says, noting that, while Ailey created “Cry” 50 years ago, in light of today’s pressing issues like police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Pandemic, “Cry” is still relevant. “Mr. Ailey is such a genius. He takes you on a physical and emotional journey that celebrates the resilience and strength of Black women, especially Black mothers.”
As with this celebration of “Cry” the celebration of Jamar Roberts, the company’s first resident choreographer, is also a testament to Ailey’s genius and heart. While Roberts is the first to hold that title, when Alvin Ailey was alive he championed his dancers’ creative journey by making it possible for those with talent to create works for the company. Now, Artistic Director Robert Battle has generously institutionalized the process and Roberts, whose work in the company has received critical acclaim for the last several years, is stepping into this role.
After 18 years with the Ailey company, Roberts is luxuriating in this wonderful opportunity to spread his wings. Prior work such as 2016’s “Gemeos” created for Ailey II, followed by “Members Don’t Get Weary,” has been hailed “as emotional as it was virtuosic.” And, this young artist’s journey is still in its early stages. Speaking of those who have inspired his distinctive style, Roberts describes his fascination with Alvin Ailey’s brilliant “sense of total theater” and its ability to transport a vieviewer. Another inspiration is the remarkable Ohad Naharin, who “has this natural kind of thing going on that makes you feel as if you don’t have to put on being a dancer. His works say I am as I am and creates an organic experience.” Another one of them is George
Faison, “particularly the honesty, the fact that once you arrive in the studio, you take it there, you commit to a kind of presence.”
As the pandemic begins to, hopefully, wind down and this relatively new chapter in his creative life begins to take off, one can only imagine that the future holds endless possibilities for Jamar Roberts. Even as he is in the process of negotiating a renewal of his contract as resident choreographer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater other vistas are also opening up for him. Roberts says, “The next work that I’m creating for the Ailey company is set to be performed during the Spring 2022 season.
It’s still in the works.” What’s more the cat is out of the bag and, while Ailey is still home, his talent has prompted other companies to invite him to create works for them, including the New York City Ballet. This season, Ailey audiences will have the distinct pleasure of seeing his second commissioned piece for the Ailey company, a work entitled “Ode,” a testament to both his talent and the commitment of Battle’s genius of carrying on the Alvin Ailey legacy of nurturing talent and providing dance goers with memorable experiences.