Ailey Opener UnRavels Ravel and More

Music plays a defining role in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s first of four programs, spread out over six performances at the Auditorium Theatre (March 22-26). 


Smart programming of four stylistically distinctive works brought together an energizing diversity of musical sounds and movement palettes. Opening with the Chicago premiere of Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep” (2016), and concluding with Alvin Ailey’s iconic “Revelations” (1960), the evening launched the company’s annual Chicago residency with a celebration of both our fundamental instinct to dance and the Ailey company’s roots in its African American heritage. 


“Deep,” set to Ibeyi's fusion of traditional Yoruba (Nigerian) chants and Afro-Cuban jazz,  parallels the alternating contemporary and tribal sounds of twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz’s music. Movement shifts in tone with the musical shifts between modern dance falls, lifts, and luscious spiral turns, and African-inspired pelvic thrusts and hyper-extensions, undulating spines, and pulsating foot stomps. Stitching it all together is a running theme of intricate arm gestures, ceremonial in feel, sculpting and circumscribing the space around their heads, which amplifies into the pelvis and legs as the piece expands both spatially and thematically.  Bigonzetti juxtaposes whole group action of the sixteen dancers against spatially isolated interludes of intimacy between couples. Alternating male and female dominance suggests a play on sexual politics, women poised in precarious balance on men’s thighs, stepping over them, discarding them; a man operating his female partner like puppeteer and puppet. The pervasive emotional tension between musical modes infuses the dancing with sudden dynamic shifts, interceding as the dancers are about to snap.


Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” (2016) begins before the house lights dim with a lone man in derby hat and trench coat seemingly searching for his seat in the front of the house. When he climbs up onto the stage and peers under the curtain, the jig is up, or rather “on,” as a surrealistic world of scenes behind scenes serves up a hilarious series of sight gags to a chercher la femme theme.  One outrageous surprise after the next  unfolds, collapses, and regroups with the dancers literally climbing the walls, all to the mounting repetitive melody of Ravel’s “Bolero.” The result is Ravel unravelled as you’ve never heard Ravel before, a cross between Dudley Moore in the movie “10” and the frantic opening and closing doors of Michael Frayn’s play, “Noises Off.”  In a bold stroke of dramatic courage, Inger dares to cut the sound abruptly, at a moment of peak musical intensity, and enters the realm of silence, wherein he stages the riveting psychological drama of a woman locked out and the man who finds her. Their emotional wrestling match becomes a poignant commentary on the raucous extremes Inger applies to the very heartbeat of Ravel’s music, both before and after their duet—fast-paced lifts, shakes and squiggles, tossing bodies, desperate kicks, and split sissones catching every pluck and trill of the music. "Bolero" gave Inger a platform for satire, the piano music of Arvo Part its contrasting pathos.


Robert Battle’s duet, “Ella,” (2008, Ailey premiere 2016), staged some years back as a solo, visualizes Ella Fitzgerald’s amazing scat singing in “Airmail Special.” Danced to perfection Wednesday night by Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel, the movement captures every syllable of Fitzgerald’s jazz vocalization with a different body part in a loving choreographic tribute.


“Revelations,” which closes each of the four programs, is the company’s signature piece. This dance renews itself and its audiences, no matter how many times we have seen it. The combination of traditional music with choreography that captures the essence of the life and the fervent faith that produced it is so effervescent, it has the audience on its feet and clapping to the music during the post-bows reprise. 


In each of the four works, music is more than an equal partner in creating the world of meaning in which the dancing lives and breathes, whether abstract in “Deep,” narrative in its wacky way in “Walking Mad,” vocally in “Ella,” or culturally and historically specific in “Revelations.”  And yet, the dancing, far from being diminished by virtue of the music’s strength, soars beyond itself in partnership with it, transforms it, and serves it back re-digested through the brilliance of dancing bodies. Music in all four pieces tells us where we are, who we are, why we are, in a way that frees the imagination to engage with the energy and richness of the dance. A refreshing start to a most exciting Ailey season.


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