By Walter Rutledge
In the world of fine art a painter can be identified by his or her brush strokes. As individual as a fingerprint they are more defining than a signature. Some might say they are the artist’s soul; they possess the distinct characteristics that draw us to this person and their work. When the forces align to create the “perfect storm” we acclaim this phenomenon “art”, and acknowledge the creator with the title artist (unfortunately the word artist is generally under-rated and over-used).
The Alvin Alley American Dance Theater began a 10-day encore performance series on June 10th 2010 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Appropriately entitled Ailey Spirit (one of two programs offered) the evening consisted of three works by two modern dance masters, Mary Lou’s Mass and Revelations by company founder Alvin Ailey and Ronald K. Brown’s Dancing Spirit. The evening lived up to the belief that dance can be a spiritual, if not a reverent experience. An experience between the dance maker and the performer, the performer and the audience; and ultimately between the audience as a collective and the individual sitting in the dark immersed in the “perfect storm”- that defining and extremely personal moment when we encounter and experience art.
The light slowly dimmed as a three-minute piano solo introduced us to the music of Mary Lou Williams. The composition entitled “The Lord is Heavy” (also known as Spiritual 2 and 3) and the strong piano performance were distinctively Ms. Williams. As the curtain rose a solo dancer, Clinton Brown, donning religious vestments stood upstage of a pool of light. With great aplomb and authority he entered the light thus officially beginning Mary Lou’s Mass.
Choreographed in 1971 the work is set in the Horton dance technique. Horton was the original modern dance style of the Ailey Company, which was founded upon in 1958. There were signature “Aileyque brush strokes” throughout the mass; the use of the back and arms, suspended attitude turns, walking contractions and releases, and the uncluttered and focused use of both soloists as well as large groups were all classic Ailey in style and presentation.
Father Peter O’Brien, Ms. Williams’ friend and personal manager said, “I sent 3 or 4 albums, which included Mary Lou’s Music For Peace, to Ailey’s office. In the summer 1971, I was at St. Malachy’s Chapel (the actors chapel) it was my first summer as a priest; I received a phone call from Ivy Clark she told me Alvin was interested in the mass. He had recently finished choreographing the Bernstein Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center. He (Ailey) later asked Mary Lou if there is a Bernstein Mass and a Mozart Mass why couldn’t there be a Mary Lou’s Mass? From that moment on the composition was known as Mary Lou’s Mass, he gave it that name.”
Ms. William’s subtle musical complexity and cool manipulation of varied jazz styles well-suited Ailey’s vast movement vocabulary. Two sections, which are standouts, were The Scripture Reading and The Lord’s Prayer. The stylistic dichotomy of these sections is immediately apparent, the impact is beyond choreographic it is also the performers interpretation of the roles that define these sections.
The Scripture Reading section was a welcomed departure from pure movement feel of the choreography. Mr. Ailey ingeniously transitions from abstraction and pure movement to a dance narrative style. The section became a moving, living parable. Matthew Rushing as Lazarus was technically and theatrically articulate. Jamar Roberts as the Rich Man was the Abbott to Mr. Rushing’s Costello, while Mr. Brown remained the cohesive and consistent thread throughout.
The Lord’s Prayer is a poignant moment and the centerpiece of the work; Renee Robinson performed it with great sensitivity. Ms Robinson is a twenty-nine year Ailey veteran, and the only member of the present company who was actually “molded” by the hands of the master Ailey himself. This gave her performance of this work an added significance.
Dancing Spirit opened with three dancers crossing the stage on a diagonal from upstage left to downstage right. Dancers would enter and create a moving tableau trio; the most downstage dancer would leave to be replaced by a dancer upstage. The repetitive stylized movement set the choreographic tone of the entire work.
Mr. Brown created a work that is rich and unencumbered by convention. The use of theme and variation/ development dominated the work, thus anchoring the audience. These devices employ the use of repetition, which assisted in creating a visual excitement and a kinesthetic conform.
The repetition went beyond the movement it was also gestural. This developed a language between the performers and the dialogue translates to the audience. Bursts of explosive movement were framed by optically clean and pleasing passages, movement that relied on the entire being to execute.
Dancing Spirit exemplifies the first law of art, that the works possess a quality that makes it appear deceptively easy and therefore aesthetically universal. How many times have we seen a sculpture or hummed a tone and said I could have done that? The truth is we couldn’t, but the artist has approached the subject with such honesty we claim a subliminal ownership. Mr. Brown has these attributes; he is an artist, an individual, and an innovator.
In the last section the “brush strokes” are joyous. The audience became enamored with both the choreography and the exuberance of the performers. The experience transcended the western concept of dance as presentation, and it acquired a ceremonial aura.
The work was billed as a “tribute to Judith Jamison’s profound influence… embody Jamison’s elegance, dignity and generosity”. The work does not memorializing her legacy it exalted her instead. He expressed the aforementioned qualities through the elegance, dignity and generosity of his gift as a dance maker.
The program closed with Ailey’s signature work Revelations. The evening seemed to belong to dancer Renee Robinson. Her performances in all three works presented was welcomed and appreciated.
The encore performances runs from June 10th thru 20th at the Howard Gilman Opera House in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which located at 30 Lafayette Avenue. There are two programs being offered Ailey Spirit and By Popular Demand. Tickets for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at BAM can be purchase online at alvinailey.org or BAM.org and by calling (718) 636-4100.
In Photos 1) Homage to Mary Lou by Romare Bearden* 2) Renee Robinson** 3) Y. Lebrun, V. Gilmore, and J. Roberts** 4) R. Robinson and V. Gilmore+ 5) M. Rushing, R. Robinson, C. Stamatiou**
Photo by: * courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation, ** Nan Melville, ***Paul Kolnik, + Christopher Duggan