Few if any of today’s modern-dance companies have what could be called household names. But one that comes pretty close is the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which marks its 60th anniversary this year and remains as popular as ever.
The internationally acclaimed, 32-member troupe is particularly well-known in Chicago. Since 1969, it has performed regularly at the Auditorium Theatre, where it will return March 7-11 for six performances and a series of outreach activities.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
When: 7:30 p.m. March 7 and 8; 7:30 p.m. March 9; 2 and 8 p.m. March 10; 3 p.m. March 11
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Along with the inherent athleticism and humanity of the Alvin company’s performances, said artistic director Robert Battle, has always come a welcoming feeling of accessibility even when the repertoire is more daring.
“That accessibility and down-home feeling, that energy in the theater that feels so transferable and some kind of populist bent – that remains the same,” Battle said. “People who may not go to see dance otherwise come to see the Ailey, because they relate to the dancers, they relate to the physicality and they relate to the spiritual aspect of the company.”
Long establishing the tone for the troupe has been Ailey’s most iconic work, “Revelations” (1960), with its evocative, archetypal movement set to spirituals and other traditional African-American religious music. In keeping with the company’s longtime practice, the work will be performed at all of its upcoming Chicago appearances.
“People see ‘Revelations’ like they do the National Anthem at a ball game,” Battle said. “For a lot of people who come to see the company, that’s a huge part of the reason they come again and again. It exemplifies the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and makes it unique.”
But along with that mainstay will be much that is new as well. The troupe has presented more than 235 works by 90 choreographers during its history, and Battle has continued that tradition of constantly expanding and revitalizing its repertory since he took the helm in 2011.
Each year the company adds five selections to its line-up – some combination of commissions, acquisitions of existing dance works and revivals of pieces it has presented before. One constant has been an emphasis on African-American choreographers, both old masters and rising talents.
One such master is Talley Beatty, who grew up in Chicago. A revival of his “Stack-Up” will be among the 11 works the Ailey troupe will present in three different Auditorium Theatre programs. Inspired by Los Angeles street life, the kinetic 1982 work is set to the music of Grover Washington Jr., Earth, Wind and Fire and others.
Battle believes Beatty (1918-95), who was friends with Ailey and an important contributor to the company, is under-appreciated. “His sense of theatricality is genius,” the artistic director said, “and that doesn’t always get celebrated.”
The Chicago programs will also feature two new works – Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “Victoria” and Jamar Roberts’ “Members Don’t Get Weary.” Roberts, a longtime Ailey dancer, has previously created a piece for Ailey II, but this is his first for the main company.
Roberts has made dances since he was child – long before he knew the word “choreography” or what it meant. “I got better,” he said, “and decided to show somebody at some point, and they liked it, and then I heard it was a thing – that you could actually present work on a regular basis, and it kind of snowballed.”
“Members,” which premiered in December, is set the rhythmically challenging beats of celebrated jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Roberts said it took him a year “to pry into that music” and pair with it with dance movements.
Much of the piece was choreographed while the Ailey company was on tour in Great Britain just before the 2016 presidential election, and Roberts was caught up in the political tensions of that moment and how it was viewed from Europe. “Between that and a bunch of other things happening at the time, I felt like things were pretty grim,” he said.
He describes this piece as both a response to the current social landscape as well as an abstract take on the notion of “having the blues.” “It was not my intention for it to be a political response,” Roberts said. “It was more an emotional response. It was a really cathartic experience for me.”
Few dance companies have endured for 60 years, and Battle admits that it isn’t easy to keep the Ailey troupe going. “It’s amazing,” he said, “considering that it’s harder to get foundation money, harder to get corporate sponsorship and harder to tour. But somehow, we manage to thrive and not just survive.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.