Rennie Harris’s “Lazarus” a resurrection of Ailey

Alvin Ailey, his message, and his spirit live on in the two pieces on Saturday night’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater program at the Auditorium Theatre. (The same program was performed this past Wednesday and will be repeated today, Sunday, at 3 p.m., rounding out its five-day Chicago engagement.)

Acclaimed hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris’s “Lazarus” (December 2018), brand new and the company’s first-ever two-act ballet, and Ailey’s “Revelations” (1960), one of the company’s earliest and most enduring triumphs, both bring the essence of what has sustained this marvelous dance enterprise at the center of American dance for the past 60 years.

Both pieces characterize the specificity and universality of Ailey’s vision in ways that overlap thematically through vastly different styles and choreographic structures.

“Revelations,” performed at the end of every concert, is the company’s calling card, the piece that woke up the world and changed the landscape of American dance. Ailey’s revolutionary recreation of the black experience in America, set to traditional spirituals and gospel music, combines modern dance, jazz, ballet, and popular dance idioms in one virtuosic episode after the next. Amazingly, the company keeps this piece fresh, as if each new generation of dancers gets a mandatory blood transfusion of “Revelations” along with their Alvin Ailey company contract. Ailey attributed his creative impulse to “blood memories” of growing up in rural Texas. No matter how many times I have seen “Revelations,” I always discover something new. Last night, it was perhaps because of “Lazarus” preceding it, a happy stroke of programming. Although I am always ready to watch “Revelations,” regardless of what has come before it, last night it resonated with particular poignance as Harris’s last voice-over words from “Lazarus” still hovered in the darkness of the vast Auditorium Theatre: “Mr Ailey? Mr. Ailey?” Alvin Ailey’s vision, and the company that continues to faithfully demonstrate the power of dance to transform hearts and minds, attitudes and ultimately behavior never packed more of a wallop.

Harris never knew Alvin Ailey, but the breadth of Ailey’s impact on the art form and on American culture paved the way for Harris’s career, and for his pinnacle achievement in “Lazarus.”

The Biblical Lazarus is a story of resurrection: “…though he were dead, yet shall he live…” (Chapter 11, Gospel of John). The ballet “Lazarus,” loosely inspired by Ailey’s life, uses the metaphor of resurrection and rebirth to evoke Ailey’s ever-present spirit as both an homage to Ailey and his legacy and as an expression of Harris’s personal response to injustice and racial discrimination. From the Jim Crow South to the urban North, from jitterbug to hip-hop, from lynchings and economic strife to rebirth and rejoicing, from heartache and fear to self-assertion and buoyancy, “Lazarus” is an epic choreographic poem. Its rich and penetrating movement imagery, structural integrity, and emotional depth point to an evolution in Harris’s work towards ever-more sophisticated melding of genres as his unique choreographic voice matures.

Among the most striking themes is the recurrence of group formations out of which the “Lazurus” figure emerges, seemingly reborn, resurrected and revitalized. The horror of a whole gallery of lynchings, limp bodies hanging from invisible nooses, then being dragged, folding into lifeless mounds, contrasts with the shear terror of a single individual running for dear life across the stage. Clusters of pedestrians periodically make their way back and forth across the stage in intermittent pilgrimages, walking, crawling, or catapulting from hand to foot, as if to transcend time, to persevere. Harris’s use of break dance and hip-hop moves with a four-limbed, on-the-floor ballet of tour jetés, renversés and cartwheels drags the dancers through a life of struggle.

In one of his most striking images, used effectively in both acts, the ensemble is supine with only arms moving, extended vertically and waving in slow motion, like blades of tall grass the protagonist walks through, or like water he is baptized in, or reborn from, or drowned in, or like cotton the women pick and harvest into their cloth sacks.

James Clotfelter’s deft lighting catches arms, hands and fingertips like sunlight at dawn. The deceptive simplicity of Mark Eric’s minimalist touch in costuming suggests different eras of history and pockets of culture in a vest here, the hint of a frock there, suspenders or sport coats.

Darrin Ross’s sound scape of tonal music, breathing, heartbeats, spoken text, barking dogs, drumming, weeping and song create a scenic environment that drops in and out of focus with an abstracted narrative where characters surface momentarily, then fade. We are in a nightclub where jitterbug legs and nimble feet kick, flick, and criss-cross in fast-paced rhythms, while flaccid arms wave and wiggle and torsos undulate above swiveling hips. Or, in Act Two, in an especially rousing sequence, we are out in wide open spaces, maybe at a campfire, where unmistakably African drumming ignites the stage with Afro-modern shoulder isolations, shimmies, pelvic rotations, rapid, two-footed jumps and foot-stomping.

The manic dance action of Act One contrasts beautifully with its joyful, self-actualized reprise in Act Two. Framing the high-intensity dancing are the shifting dynamics of lyrical group lament and an amplification of the pedestrian pilgrimages in raucous racing leaps and skitters. The repetition and amplification of these movement themes in Acts One and Two pull “Lazurus” together with a satisfying poetic logic that, in the end, leaves you both hopeful and questioning, but unequivocally in Mr. Ailey’s presence.