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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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PerformanceDanceAfter 65 years, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater still exalts...

After 65 years, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater still exalts Black life and modern movement

Duke Ellington, Alonzo King, and six decades of classics are on tap for company's latest Cal Performances residency.

There is nothing middle-aged about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s return to the Bay Area for its 56th residency, courtesy of UC Berkeley.

Among arts organizations, especially dance companies and presenting organizations, Cal Performances’ longtime relationship and commitment to the company’s annual trek is a remarkable triumph. Ailey has presented a 65-year span of dancers performing classic and contemporary works for generations of audience members, who have established traditions, created treasured memories, and offered standing ovations that always result in barnstorming encores, especially when it comes to Ailey’s granddaddy masterpiece, the seminal Revelations choreography that ends every performance.

Rehearsal director Ronni Favors says the company’s dual mission has always been to celebrate both Black cultural experience and modern dance traditions.

“That’s our touchstone,” she says. “This is what we always go back to, and what will propel us forward.”

Seven programs will be offered from April 2 to 7 (in five different programs with two repetitions) in addition to an appearance at Cal Performances’ centerpiece April 4 gala. Audiences anticipate the Bay Area premieres of a duet by former Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish entitled “Me, Myself and You,” a work set to the music of Duke Ellington (“Reflections in D”), and Amy Hall Garner’s “CENTURY.” An entire Ailey Classics program, featuring excerpts of the founder’s signature works spanning six decades, will be presented in addition to San Francisco-based Alonzo King’s “Following the Subtle Current Upstream” and Hans Van Manen’s “Solo.” Rounding out the bill are two highly admired works by choreographers Ronald K. Brown and Kyle Abraham, and a number of extended talkbacks and community outreach activities.

The company’s work is composed of multiple connective threads. Its staff leads Bay Area outreach programs like the summertime Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, which is part of a nationwide network of camps offering K-12 students free dance training and opportunities to perform pieces from the Ailey canon. Favors own dance training reflects the power of this multiplicity in mission. She attended the prestigious Ailey School as a fellowship student and in her professional dance career became a member of Ailey II, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. She was the ballet instructor at the 1989 inaugural session of AileyCamp in Kansas City, the founding director of Children’s Aid AileyCamp New York, and participated in guiding the development of the AileyCamp program.

In 1997, she was named assistant rehearsal director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and served as rehearsal director from 1999 to 2010. Favors rejoined the company in the same role in 2019, and now stages Ailey works with other companies nationwide. Asked to speak specifically on each work in the Ailey Classics program, Favors’ tone reveals an unwavering enthusiasm.

“‘Reflections in D,’ as with all of Mr. Ailey’s works, shows the different ways he highlights and illustrates music through movement. The recording we use sounds like Duke Ellington was just noodling along; playing things the way they occurred to him. That’s the way the dance looks too. It has an improvisatory feeling that’s closely wedded to music. Alvin choreographed it on himself and it’s a beautiful solos that’s meditative, powerful, and quiet.”

Favors was in the room and on tour with the company in Europe when Ailey choreographed Memoria. The dance is an ode and tribute to Joyce Trisler, a dancer with Ailey in the Lester Horton Dance Theatre and master teacher at the Ailey school. “Her death was a blow to all of us,” Favors says. “She was not just a dancer, woman, mother, choreographer. She was a mentor to me and so many people. The work encapsulates all the arenas in which she was active and since 1979, it’s been performed every year and is a definite staple in the company.

“‘Night Creature’ was choreographed in 1974 as part of an Ailey Celebrates Ellington festival that was televised and broadcast nationwide on Thanksgiving Day,” she continues. “It’s jazzy and dazzling and fun. It was a way for Ailey to bridge separations between classical ballet and modern dance. It was a way to illuminate all the different types of dance his dancers could do. It took a new direction after he choreographed stories of the Black experience, then more classical ballet pieces. It expanded the range of the dancers and audience expectations of what Black dancers could do and was a new departure.”

Pas de Duke, when it premiered, held the thrill of seeing Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov onstage together. Favors says Jamison was “a force of nature” and the first superstar in modern dance. Seeing Jamison onstage with the ballet world’s incomparable Baryshnikov was “like fireworks.” Their tongue-in-cheek onstage competition was unforgettable. “There’s tons of technique, but the supersonic performances are what continue to thrill audiences,” she says.

“Masekela Langage” is choreographed to the music of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who lived in exile for most of his life. “It’s an excerpt and the entire piece is a protest of the apartheid era,” says Favors. “I think of it as in the lineage of Alvin’s Blues Suite: people trapped in a cage and there’s no way out. But Blues Suite has humor, a sense of laughing to keep from crying. In Masekela, there’s no hope on the horizon. The people are at war with each other, themselves, the outside world, and the inhumanity of it all. It’s one woman and three men and it’s her cri du coeur, her cry of the heart.”

A commission from Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey resulted in “Opus McShann,” a lighthearted romp with two male dancers. Love Songs features the music of Donny Hathaway, and was created for the late Dudley Williams. “There’s extreme musicality and soulfulness. It’s part of a triptych and it’s so great to be out in the audience; you hear that glorious voice of Donny Hathaway and the audience swoons and you’re taken along on this journey of love and yearning. It’s great to see a male soloist dancing with vulnerability and heart and depth about love.”

“Bird Lives,” the excerpt from “For ‘Bird’—With Love” is a tribute to Charlie Parker. The groupings are more architectural than later works, and hark back to Ailey’s roots in the Lester Horton canon in terms of technique, movement, symmetry, and the use of stage space. “At the end of the piece we’ve gone through Charlie Parker’s whole life and this is a final tribute to him.”

“Revelations” is on every program of the residency, but provides something new every time for Favors. Seeing new dancers find themselves within it and discover joy, she says shows authenticity as well as provide freshness. “It’s a way for young dancers to get to know Ailey: dancing inside a masterwork incites appreciation and respect for history.” She says it is life-changing for most dancers and audiences. “Even though we may do it often, it’s a rare experience. It’s humbling and invigorating to see audiences respond each night. No matter where you come from or religion you belong to, it touches you.”

About the future and how the company will continue to move forward after the sudden departure of artistic director Robert Battle, who left this year for health-related reasons, Favors says, “Alvin was completely brilliant in creating the company in that (model), so it wasn’t completely dependent on his choreographic voice. It was the same question when Alvin died, and when Judith came in to direct the company and later, when Robert took over the helm still answering those questions. People whose stories and bodies weren’t seen on stage much are continuing to be seen.

“Our company was DEI before it was a poster word. It was always diverse and consciously multiracial in order to be illustrative of the universality of the human experience. As long as who hold true to that, whoever takes over the helm has a reliable compass to use as they guide the company into its next generation.”

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER runs April 2-7. Zellerbach Hall, Berk. Tickets and more info here.

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