Ailey is back! With a long hiatus from Chicago due to the pandemic, opening night at the Auditorium Theatre was just the reunion and fellowship we forgot we needed.
Before the program began, I searched my program looking for the theme of the evening.
It didn’t become evident to me until the next morning. Not only was Ailey back with the rigor and revitalization that they bring in their usual fashion this time of year, Artistic Director and “Choreographer” Robert Battle was back with his renewed creative force, and that is what we were here to celebrate—his 10th Anniversary as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey Company!
The evening was plump with seven of Battle’s works over his career. From the Kathak-inspired solo “TAKADEME,” created in 1999, to his latest piece, “For Four” (2021), the Robert Battle Ten Year Anniversary Program was like a choreographic brag book, a photo album that you bring out on special occasions, shouting look what we’ve done, but also look at us now!
The first piece, “Mass,” comes to me in waves. Choreographed by Battle in 2004, this was my first time experiencing the powerful work. Meditative movements and high, vibrational xylophone tones softened and cleansed us. Iridescent choir-like gowns crafted by Fritz Masten pranced in mood-ring lighting imagined by Burke Wilmore. The interaction between costuming and lighting was absolutely glowing, and as much a part of the dance as the dance itself. Shifting from purple to pewter, it was easy to get lost in what appeared to be a magic hour.
The sixteen-deep ensemble quickly shifted from single file lines to compact clusters. Solo explosions escalated to full-out chorus expression as the sound crescendoed to something deeply guttural. All the while, the dancers managed to maintain and come back to recurring cupped hand positions slightly in front of the abdomen. The movement felt like the awe I experienced watching my childhood church choir in processional. A serenade of harmony, percussion, sway and soul-penetrating sound, “Mass” set the bar for the unexpected imagery to come.
Also created in 2004 was Battle’s “Love Stories,” the fifth piece of the evening. A spirit of deep, penetrating percussive grooves sweeps from the stage to the audience, I scanned stage left and right just to be sure live musicians were not in fact with us.
Would you believe the surprising sound of a harmonica had the nerve to lift the already-energetic mood? The ten dancers were dressed in bright orange and coral jumpsuits, and the movement was pure fun. Flexed-foot battements, quirky thriller arms and diagonal upper body positioning, also present in “Mass,” all made me smile. Just as I was ready to shout, the piece was elevated again with a razzle dazzle backdrop of string lights, draped like constellations. The line of dimly-lit dancers against the wall of starlight was yet another surprise amidst all the 60’s styled fun we were experiencing. When I surveyed the room, the audience (myself included) was in uncontrollable sway, with percolating shouts and sporadic claps. "Love Stories” was fun, southern and undeniably black.
Tributes to Battle’s colorful repertoire continued with “For Four,” created in the heart of the pandemic after he had taken a choreographic hiatus for the past ten years. In the same vein of fun as “Love Stories,” “For Four” brings us jazz, lightheartedness and black excellence. It feels part vaudeville with the costumes, giving us glimpses of the American Flag as a backdrop but also peaks of the black American flag in the lighting-red, black and green. The quartet jazzed us with their explosive tosses and frets to trumpets galore, long afro swings, top hats hoppin’ and spunky chaine turns. It was air-slicing toe touches and bottle-top spinning bodies on the ground. It was black, sparkly, fun and free.
The final piece, “Revelations,” continued the longstanding tradition of Alvin Ailey’s world class legacy. Choreographed by Ailey himself in 1960, we were graced with an opportunity to see the undulations of “Wade in the Water” danced by Belen Indhira Pereyra, Solomon Dumas and Jacqueline Green, the rigor of “Sinnerman” performed by Jeroboam Bozeman, James Gilmer and Kanji Segawa, and the infectious gospel of “I wanna be ready” danced by Vernard J. Gilmore.
I left the theatre feeling renewed, grateful for the Ailey Company, for the tradition of “Revelations,” for the courage of the dancers and Mr. Battle to answer their callings, and for the opportunity to both see and understand the fullness of what I experienced. Happy 10th Anniversary Robert Battle, and shine on Ailey Company!
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater continues through Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells Drive. Tickets are $40-$104 and available at auditoriumtheatre.org or 312.341.2300. For more details, click the event page below.