During the course of its nearly six decades as a cultural phenomenon, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has created a unique and enduring bond with its audiences. And when the company arrives for its annual Chicago engagement something else pops into place: The Auditorium Theatre instantly becomes the most racially mixed hub in a city that can still be divided.
Tuesday’s opening night performance featured one of three different programs to be presented during the company’s run here, with all drawing to a celebratory close with Ailey’s “Revelations,” a work that has audiences applauding from the moment it hears the opening notes of “I Been ‘Buked,” to the fan-waving finale of “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
But there was much more on the bill that proved electrifying, most notably artistic director Robert Battle’s “Awakening,” the first work he created for the company since becoming its artistic director in 2011. A true stunner, it is a fascinating mix of the Ailey inheritance and Battle’s own bravura theatricality driven by his ability to conjure rituals made modern.
ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER
When: Through March 13
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $33 – $123
Info: (312) 341-2300; www.AuditoriumTheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with two intermissions
Set to a thunderous, altogether thrilling score by John Mackey, “Awakening” might best be described as “The Rite of Spring” meets a latter-day vision of End Days. Its 12 dancers, dressed in loose white pajama-like costumes by Jon Taylor, arrive to the sound of wildly warped brass that suggests a herd of elephants run amok. Unquestionably there is a cataclysmic disturbance in the air as the dancers swirl frenziedly — gathering into a tight huddle at some moments, as if seeking a zone of collective safety, and then circling out like a flock of birds stunned by gunshots or a bomb.
The “leader” of the group (the formidable, towering Jamar Roberts), draws them tightly into that protective coil-like huddle, and later leads them out, as the dancers’ gaze turns heavenward in a mixture of questioning and prayer. Nothing is literal here, but there is a palpable anxiety, with an exorcism suggested by stag leaps and jumps that is part frenzied terror, part pure exuberance. Designer Al Crawford’s ultra modern, galactic-style lighting adds greatly to the aura. Breathtaking from start to finish.
Also new to Chicago audiences was “Open Door,” Ronald K. Brown’s gorgeously fluid, sensual work with a Latin beat (set to the music of Luis Demetrio, Arturo O’Farrill and Tito Puente), with Keiko Voltaire’s beautifully hued, gossamer costumes moving with the same sensual flow as the 10 dancers’ amazing arms, hips and backs.
A subtle study of relationships (the individual, couple, group), it begins with a male solo (danced by the company’s invaluable “poet,” Matthew Rushing), followed by a female solo (veteran dancer Linda Celeste Sims in her usual superb form). It then moves into a more social ballroom-like world conjoing the energy of five couples. There are notably sensational, sinewy moves by Belen Pereyra (will someone please choreograph a dance about Frida Kahlo for this woman?), with no shortage of lush motion from Rachel McLaren, Akua Noni Parker, Hope Boykin, Michael Francis McBride, Jamar Roberts, Daniel Harder and Varnard J. Gilmore.
“Love Songs,” an Ailey classic from 1972, features a single dancer (the intensely focused Glenn Allen Sims, whose body is a model of the male form) conjuring three episodes in a man’s life. It begins with Donny Hathaway’s rendering of “A Song for You,” a tale of lost love; moves on to Nina Simone’s haunting take on “Poppies,” about a promising young boy destroyed by drugs; and finally suggests the need to carry via Hathaway’s “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother.”
Though this might be a bit heretical (or against Ailey’s original wishes), I think this work might be stronger if a different dancer performed the second, youthful section while the principal subject looked on at his past self.
In “Revelations,” which the company continues to perform as if for the first time, Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims gave a breathtaking performance of “Fix Me, Jesus.” Demetia Hopkins-Greene brought special zest to “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” along with Michael Jackson, Jr. and Hope Boykin. Ghrai DeVore, Renaldo Maurice and Jacqueline Green brought a winning sense of celebration to “Wade in the Water.” Vernard J. Gilmore was a model of artful control in “I Wanna Be Ready.” And Samuel Lee Roberts, Yannick Lebrun and Michael Francis McBride tore through “Sinner Man.”
Note: “Progam B” includes Rennie Harris’ “Exodus” and Battle’s “No Longer Silent,” and “C” features Ailey’s “Blues Suite” and “Cry,” plus Paul Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera.”