Chicago Theatre Review
Sex, courtship, and spirituality richly explored in Alvin Ailey’s Auditorium show
Alvin Ailey Dance Theater – the legendary dance company that blends ballet, modern dance, jazz, and African dance techniques into one ecstatic blend – premiered three new works this week at the Auditorium Theatre, and the results were nothing short of spectacular.
Robert Battle, Alvin Ailey’s artistic director, commented that the company’s premieres “hold a mirror up to society [and] showcase daring choreographic voices,” and that audacity was apparent from the opening minutes of the group’s first piece, “Deep.” Choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti and set to the remarkable music of Ibeyi (a French-Cuban musical duo consisting of twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz), “Deep” is a technical triumph, featuring Alvin Ailey’s entire company. Costumed by Bigonzetti in black and grey and featuring virtuosic lighting from Carlo Cerri, the piece is a complex commentary on relationships, courtship, and patriarchy/feminism, and it is exhilarating watching the emotion Alvin Ailey’s dancers are able to generate with their movements to Ibeyi’s words. To watch professional dancers – to see the conventional confines of the body pushed and bent – is a uniquely pleasurable experience, and “Deep” is alone worth the price of admission.
Following “Deep” is the similarly ambitious “Walking Mad,” with choreography from Johan Inger, who also contributed striking scenic design. Set to Maurice Ravel’s delightful “Boleró,” “Walking Mad” begins as a tongue-in-cheek examination of courtship proceedings, and evolves into a profound meditation on loneliness, isolation, and nationality – the latter of which is aided by Inger’s set, which is a tall fence that stretches the full length of the stage. Whether they are utilizing hidden doors, hopping the fence, or manipulating it in unexpected ways, it serves as a subtle (but highly surprising and effective) prop – especially in a 2017 America bent on building walls and divisions. And after “Walking Mad” is “Ella,” a sumptuous appetizer of dance. Set to “Airmail Special,” an Ella Fitzgerald scat-fest, the piece is a duet between dancers Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel, and it is simply exhilarating watching the vocal feats of the inimitable Ella translated into dance.
Wry, humorous, and wildly energetic, “Ella” is the perfect segue way into “Revelations,” the 1960 work that Alvin Ailey himself choreographed. A history of emancipation told in three chapters – “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water,” and “Move, Members, Move” – “Revelations” is one of the formative works in American dance, and the current Alvin Ailey team offers a most vital revitalization. There are myriad striking moments in “Revelations,” including the silk sheets of blue that simulate water in the “Wade in the Water” movement and the antebellum costuming of the final chapter, but I was most moved by the work’s opening chapter. Set to soaring gospel arrangements from Hall Johnson and James Miller, the chapter begins with Alvin Ailey’s dancers in the dead center of the stage, huddled in a circle, backs bent and coated in an orange lighting that recalls rich soil. As the gospel arrangements fill the space, the dancers begin rising, their arms stretching into the sky and swaying back and forth. It’s as moving and eloquent a statement of Black liberation as I’ve ever seen on a Chicago stage, and is particularly apt in today’s America of Black Lives Matter.
Presented by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater at the Auditorium Theatre (50 E Congress Parkway) through March 26
Tickets are available at AuditoriumTheatre.org, or by calling 312-341-2300.