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Dance Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the triumph of modern dance

The Keller Auditorium audience was repeatedly brought to their feet as the Ailey company dancers dazzled with exhilarating performances of both contemporary choreography and Ailey’s own iconic "Revelations."

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Khalia Campbell. Photo: Dario Calmese.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Khalia Campbell. Photo: Dario Calmese.

On Wednesday, March 13, a talkative audience gathered in the sweltering Keller Auditorium to witness Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform a second night of mixed repertoire by four choreographers spanning 1960 through 2023.

The first piece of the night was Dancing Spirit, choreographed in 2009 by Ronald K. Brown. Beginning with one solo dancer in a yellow spotlight, the work progressed as nine performers in indigo, blue, and white costumes, designed by Omotayo Winmi Olaiya and dyed by Shayee Awoyom, entered the stage. Moments of circling, a cacophony of duets, and a featured duet presented expertly executed penches, turning stag leaps, and quintessential tilts. The piece was traditionally beautiful, but also groovy and fun, exemplified when the male dancers formed a line to showcase the female performers dancing exuberantly one by one in the downstage left corner – incorporating a melding of modern technique and African Dance styles. The final scene was a solo in which a giant moon was projected across the back of the stage. The work was large in scale, while rooted in intricacy that only a company of this caliber could perfect. Though created only 15 years ago, the piece had a wonderfully nostalgic air, displaying the Horton technique so often associated with the Ailey company’s works.

Alvin Ailey, who studied with Horton, became a member of his company and later took over upon Horton’s passing in 1953. In 1958, Ailey moved to New York and launched Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with other dancers from the Horton company, including Carmen de Lavallade, Joyce Trisler, and James Truitte, according to the official Ailey website.

The first ever Ailey performance occurred roughly 66 years ago on March 30, 1958 at New York’s 92nd Street YM-YWHA. Little more than a year later in 1960, Alvin Ailey choreographed Revelations – the piece that would bring him and the company international acclaim and forever carve his name into dance history and legend. In 1974, the company made its way onto the screen with Memories and Visions, a television special on PBS and later Ailey Celebrates Ellington on CBS. By 1980, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Center moved into their new buildings on Broadway, where they remain to this day. Ailey later received the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, the most prestigious award in modern dance at the time, in 1987. Alvin Ailey passed away just two years later at the age of 58. “You didn’t need to have known [him] personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood,” said The New York Times in an obituary. 

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Michael Jackson, Jr. and Sarah Daley-Perdomo. Photo: Dario Calmese
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Michael Jackson, Jr. and Sarah Daley-Perdomo. Photo: Dario Calmese.

Ailey was succeeded by choreographer and artistic director Judith Jamison in 1989, who hand-selected Robert Battle to take over in 2011. After 12 years in his position, Battle stepped down in late 2023, citing health concerns. Matthew Rushing, the company’s associate artistic director, and a distinguished former Ailey dancer, will run the company until a replacement is found for Battle.

After the evening’s first intermission came Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish’s Me, Myself and You, choreographed in 2023. Beginning with a single dancer wearing a reflective silver dress, she removed a scarf and hung it on a standing mirror located upstage right. Afterward, a male dancer donning black leggings rushed out to her and quickly removed the dress, exposing a short black dress underneath. They proceeded to dance one of the artform’s most splendidly danced duets – a love story of strength-defying lifts and daring drops, swift turns, presses, and breathtaking balances featuring perfectly straight legs punctuated by dagger-like pointed feet with the highest of arches. When it felt as though the emotional piece was only getting started, the man rushed away, leaving the woman to collect her scarf from the mirror, clutching it in front of her before a swift blackout.

(from left) Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Constance Stamatiou, Yannick Lebrun, and James Gilmer. Photo: Dario Calmese
(from left) Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Constance Stamatiou, Yannick Lebrun, and James Gilmer. Photo: Dario Calmese.

Next came Solo, one of the triumphs of the night, choreographed by Hans van Manen in 1997. While the three male dancers wore ballet tights with ‘90s-style color-blocked red, orange, or green tops under purple t-shirts, there was nothing dated about the work. The dancers exploded onto the stage one by one, often overlapping in their exits and exhibiting friendly showboating to the audience and each other as they ran in and out of the wings. Not only did they demonstrate the utmost strength, subtle humor, and technical beauty in the extremely high-pace and demanding choreography – high jumps and leaps, 180-degree extension, steadfast core strength, perfect epaulement, suspended Russian pas de chats, tilts for days, effortless turns accomplished in multiples with perfect landings – but they also reminded the audience of what it’s like to watch a truly intellectual artist at work. 

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The witnessing of something deeper than what we see forms layers that propel a piece from dance to iconism. It is evident that each participant has a deep understanding of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They have embraced the general aim or objective set upon them by the creator, but also have found a personal tether to justify their actions within the piece and transcended to a place where personality can be utilized to form a real connection with their onlookers. This is why technique is important – so that the expression of the choreography and subtle conceptual considerations of the dance can be shown in every intimate and minuscule moment, effectively drawing the viewer into their world of story, imagery, and meaning. The dancers have become artists, not only bodies or tools with which the space is manipulated. In short: why we dance.

The audience, who leapt to their feet with applause after each piece, did so again at the bow for Solos. After the second intermission, Alvin Ailey’s own towering work would leave them in exhilaration.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Solomon Dumas, Khalia Campbell, and Samantha Figgins in Alvin Aileys "Revelations." Photo: Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Solomon Dumas, Khalia Campbell, and Samantha Figgins in Alvin Aileys “Revelations.” Photo: Paul Kolnik.

According to the company’s website, Alvin Ailey’s most iconic dance, Revelations, “fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul” through the use of “African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues.” It begins with the Pilgrim of Sorrow section – containing the deep, bird-like, grouped imagery and lunges, tilts, curved arms, and deep plies – that defines the work for many. Then Take Me to the Water envelops the dancers and viewers in a scene backed by blue and white fabric strewn across the stage, showcasing the famous ‘dancer with the white parasol’ choreography and culminating in the I Wanna Be Ready solo, choreographed around a single dancer in white clothing performing in a spotlight. In this showing, his valorous and emotional rendition brought many to tears. After, the final section, titled Move, Members, Move, ends in a grand finale (and encore) of distinction, celebration, and a lightness of being. 

This, perhaps as much as anything, defines the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, making it no wonder the company, rooted in history and technique, has managed to forge triumphantly into the present.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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