Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater takes on the works of folk singer Odetta Homes.
Photo by Mike Strong
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has made a name for itself as an innovator in the world of contemporary dance. This year's New York City Center Season features choreographers from all over the world, challenging issues from modern masculinity to racial inequality and the much-anticipated world premiere of "Odetta," a piece based on the music of renowned Civil Rights Movement folk singer Odetta Homes.
Sunday evening's performance featured three fascinating works that all challenged and enthralled audiences with a beautiful and diverse demonstration of what contemporary dance can be today.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Uprising is an Ailey Company Premiere of a 2006 piece choreographed by breakout Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. The dance, performed by seven black male dancers moving through aggressive, frenetic and at times animalistic motions, is a beautiful examination of the meaning of masculinity in the modern age.
With heavy smoke cover, dim lighting and many of the gestures performed facing the back, this piece is clearly not about the individual performers. Instead, the movement becomes a character of its own, whether the men are traversing the stage on all fours, reenacting stylized moments of violence or coming together in breathtaking unison moments with African-inspired gestures.
The musical score underlying the piece, composed by Shechter himself, alienated some of the audience with its extended moments of pulsating or droning noise, alternating with a more melodic, primal theme. Yet it fits the dance extraordinarily well, creating a unified work of art that is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was first created.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Jacqulyn Buglisi has brought her signature 2000 piece "Suspended Women" to Alvin Ailey with an army of female dancers and a whirlwind of petticoats. Set to a more traditional musical score by Maurice Ravel and Daniel Bernard Roumain, the dance features a cast of fifteen women performing moments of power and, far more often, powerlessness.
The standout element of the performance is, of course, the costumes, with each dancer in a beautiful but incomplete gown, petticoats and hoop skirts visible and twirling away. The strong but somewhat limited movement vocabulary of "Suspended Women" consists of a recurring pattern of suspended attitudes, with a middle section in which four men weave through the crowd and lift the women without engagement or emotion. It is a commentary on women's agency, of course, and on the feeling of suspension that can so often characterize their lives.
If anything, Buglisi's choreography becomes too much about the dresses, the dramatic sweeps of skirts overwhelming the dancers themselves. Still, it is a mesmerizing work, and another social commentary that continues to be relevant today.
Photo by Steve Wilson
Odetta Homes was one of the most influential folk singers of the twentieth century, often labeled "the voice of the Civil Rights Movement." In this world premiere piece, choreographer Matthew Rushing takes some of Odetta's iconic tracks and weaves them into a tale of love, humor, fear and beauty.
The score of the piece features songs such as "This Little Light of Mine," "Motherless Children" and "Glory, Glory" punctuated by quotes from the singer about her career, her place in the Civil Rights struggle and her belief in the power of music to change people. For a company used to dancing to abstract and experimental sounds, Odetta's rousing tracks are quite a change, and choreographer and cast alike have done a great job adapting their style to the upbeat, rhythmic score.
The dancers fully embrace the emotion of each song, whether it is an ode to hope, despair or just gentle fun--as Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun's hilarious performance of "A Hole in the Bucket" clearly demonstrated. There is no linear, narrative story to the piece, but there is certainly an emotional arc that takes the audience through religion, war, segregation and everyday life as Odetta experienced it. Throughout, there is a strong sense of community among the dancers, whether the company is performing along with the soloist or simply sitting and watching.
Odetta also includes an entertaining variety of period costumes and a more elaborate set than any of the other pieces, using projections and a set of versatile benches to create different settings. The audience joins Odetta, loosely represented by featured dancer Akua Noni Parker, as she journeys through churches, trains and battlefields throughout her life. Parker and the rest of the soloists, meanwhile, perform with the grace and precision of an Ailey dancer even as they bring us into this very different world.
For a piece about the Civil Rights Movement, it is worth considering whether "Odetta" is too tame, too watered down and stripped of the true struggles of the era. Especially when juxtaposed with a performance like "Uprising," "Odetta" can be seen in some ways as too safe. Yet, this polish and optimism is also an integral part of Odetta herself, and perhaps this is how she would choose to have her story told.
It certainly proves what a fantastic range of perspectives and styles the Alvin Ailey dancers can portray in a single evening, and no matter which evening you choose, you will certainly encounter something new and thought-provoking. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's season at the New York City Center wraps up on January 4, so be sure to get your tickets soon.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.