Nonprofit dance companies face a multitude of challenges — with many of them folding upon the death or retirement of their founders or foundering on the rocks of financial duress.
A notable exception is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has not only survived but has gone on to become nothing short of an American cultural treasure that remains as popular and artistically relevant as ever.
The New York-based company has been a regular visitor to Chicago for much of its history, but its current appearance at the Auditorium Theatre, which began Wednesday and runs for six additional performances through Sunday, is special for several reasons.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater ★★★1⁄2 When: 7:30 p.m. March 7 (Kairos, EN and Revelations); 7:30 p.m. March 8 (Timeless Ailey and Revelations); 2 p.m. March 9 (Kairos, EN and Revelations); and 8 p.m. March 9 and 3 p.m. March 10 (Lazarus and Revelations). Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets: $34-$130 Info: auditoriumtheatre.org
It continues the American Dance Theater’s international celebration of its 60th anniversary, and, more important from a local point of view, marks the 50th anniversary of the ensemble’s first trip to the Auditorium Theatre — an extraordinary milestone.
To celebrate this occasion, the 32-member company has brought an unusually ambitious lineup — three different programs with a total of five works, including a kind of medley of its founder’s major dance creations titled “Timeless Ailey.”
While the American Dance Theater continues to preserve and honor Ailey’s choreographic legacy, it has gone on to commission and perform works by dozens of other voices. Among them is Rennie Harris, a noted exponent of hip-hop who founded a company devoted to that dance style in 1992.
In addition to a collaboration with Judith Jamison and Robert Battle, he has created two previous works for the Ailey troupe and last year added a third, “Lazarus.” The company presented the Midwest premiere Wednesday in an explosive performance epitomizing the supreme skill and commitment of its dancers.
The two-act, 60-minute work for 15 dancers pays homage to Ailey and offers a kind of history of the African-American experience, including the civil rights struggles the famed choreographer experienced as he was building his dance company in the late 1950s.
It is a bold, sprawling work set to a multifaceted, ever-changing soundtrack that mixes spoken word, sound effects and music, everything from drumming and humming to excerpts from Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” Odetta’s “Glory, Glory” and Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man In A White World.”
Harris has obviously set his sights high, and he has a big story to tell. It just wasn’t always evident what the details of that story are or what the ultimate message is. It was hard not to wish for a more coherent structure and a clearer through-line.
That said, there is much to admire about this work, which is immersed in the hip-hop style, especially the big, exuberant ensemble sections in the second act, with their twisting bodies, jutting arms and fast-paced foot shuffles, but it also draws on jazz and modern dance.
“Lazarus” opens in near darkness — just a few dramatic bands of light from the side. Harris begins by evoking the pain and suffering of slavery, including the simple, powerful sight of a line of hunched dancers dragging across the stage like zombies, and then gradually moves the action forward in time.
The choreographer creates some indelible images. The most chilling was his stark, unmistakable evocation of black lynchings — a small ensemble of dancers on their tiptoes, their arms hanging limply and their heads to one side.
One of the most stunning moments comes at the end of Act 1, as a vocalist proclaims, “This land is still my home.” A group of dancers appear on their backs, their arms undulating above like wheat blowing in a field — a beautiful metaphor for the community.
Lazarus (Daniel Harder), a kind of indomitable, timeless Everyman, stands among them, and as he walks toward the front of the stage, the dancers below him roll with him, finally reaching up to him as stretches his open palm forward.
The program ended with “Revelations,” Ailey’s best-known creation and a staple of every American Dance Theater program. This three-section, 1960 work, set to spirituals and other religious songs and drawing on Ailey’s rural upbringing in the Baptist church, is a moving and exultant tribute to the African-American spirit.
Opening with a meditative take on “I Been ‘Buked,” with now-iconic ritualistic movements such as the wing-like curved arms and wide-legged, bent-over stances, it becomes more exultant and up-tempo as it shifts into “Take Me to the Water,” with its resplendent white suits and dresses.
“Revelations” looked as fresh and vivid as ever, with today’s Ailey dancers completely embracing its classic look and feel, especially Sarah Daley-Perdomo and Glenn Allen Sims in the handsome, meditative duet set to “Fix Me, Jesus.”
Here’s hoping Chicago gets to see the Ailey company for another 50 years.
Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.