Ailey II recently visited the Park City Institute for two nights as part of its 25-city 2016/2017 world tour. The twelve-member junior company presented two programs; I was able to attend the second performance which included two works from the company’s repertory, one premiere, and concluded with Ailey’s most influential and iconic work, Revelations.
The show opened with In & Out, choreographed by Jean Emile (formerly of Nederlands Dans Theater). Unfortunately, due to weather and traffic, my companion and I missed several minutes at the beginning. Although I can’t give an assessment of the entire piece, what I was able to see offered an impressive introduction to the tremendous level of athleticism and talent in the company. The young dancers of Ailey II are lithe and powerful, and the range and speed of their virtuosity was on brazen display in In & Out.
The piece wove in and out of abstraction and suggestions of more particular characters and circumstances in an effort to depict “the ups and downs of contemporary life.” A widely ranging score divided the piece into six sections of divergent style and attitude, the overarching connections between them somewhat obscure. Emile’s choreography was big and energetic with quirky articulations, drawing on a mix of styles that showed off the dancers’ technique as well as plenty of individual personality.
In & Out was followed by Gêmeos, a duet choreographed by Jamar Roberts of Alvin Ailey’s main company. Courtney Celeste Spears and Jacoby Pruitt engaged in a teasing clash of personalities to the jazzy funk of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s Egbe Mi O.
With the help of mimed gestures and a dance battle vibe, Spears and Pruitt portrayed a competitive but playful dispute between two people in a close relationship. After the performance I learned that the piece is based on the choreographer’s relationship with his brother and their struggle to relate as an athlete and a dancer while growing up. On stage though, the contest played more as a lovers’ quarrel. There was certainly a flirtatious quality to their taunting and the split-gendered casting exploited different tropes in the score and mimed gestures to craft a sense of a male/female relationship with a pretty traditional feel. It’s unclear to me the degree to which this change was intentional, or whether it was meant to be read as any two independent beings dealing with their contrasting personalities in conflict and then resolution.
Above all, Gêmeos was fun to watch. The music encouraged movement that vaulted cheerfully to an infectious rhythm, staying grounded while agile and free-flowing. Technique and steps were less visible in the choreography than the more universal story: a driving beat and the urge to move in order to feel good, express personality, show off and entice. Watching two such extraordinarily nimble bodies devote their larger-than-life skill to dancing with such joy was captivating, but I personally felt that the piece could have done away with some of its scaffolding. The your-turn-my turn pattern and too-frequent pauses devoted to preening, peacocking gestures didn’t add much more to the relationship dynamic that wasn’t already visible in the movement.
For the evening’s penultimate piece, NYC-based choreographer and former Alvin Ailey dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis took us on a moving journey through the landscape of the inner self. With the concept of the work generated by Willis’s experiences growing up and attending the Ailey School, Stream of Consciousness arranged six dancers and Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons into a segmented piece that gave physical representation to the burgeoning labyrinth of feeling and discovery inside a young mind.
The piece utilized a structure similar to the idea behind the evening’s opener and also Revelations, which was to follow. The scheme is one of multiple fragments that are not explicitly narrative but portray with fleshed-out characterization disparate facets of feeling and identity, which taken as a whole, tell the story of a larger human experience. Drawing on the particularly vivid anxieties and epiphanies of adolescence, Willis illustrated a story that was immediately and intensely familiar. The restrained hint of school uniform in the dancers’ black and white outfits grounded their identity in a tribute to youth, while the lack of forced narrative, setting, props, or defined roles lent universality to their emotions.
The choreography employed an inventive lexicon and effortless musicality to make Richter’s sometimes ubiquitous style sound fresh and impossibly well-matched. As with the first two works, the use of stylized iconic gesture was prominent and comedy was injected liberally. The wiggling of a dancer’s behind that caused uncontrollable spasms of laughter in the young boy seated next to me was delivered next to piercing images that invoked memories of the angst and alarming pleasure of growing up in my own mind.
Finally, Revelations closed the show with its inimitable power and glory. The piece is an adored cornerstone of the main company, and it’s interesting to see the second company take this most famous work on its grand tour. Full disclosure: I’ve seen recordings of Revelations before, but this was my first time experiencing it live in its entirety. While I personally took immense pleasure from viewing Ailey II’s performance, I wonder how it would match up to a showing by the main company’s dancers who have had more time to grow into its history. On this night, particular moments of transcendence came from the quaking threads of supplication during “Fix Me Jesus”, the swaying, undulating procession leading into “Take Me to the Water”, Gabriel Hyman’s masterful and explosive interpretation of the solo “I Wanna Be Ready”, and the resonance of effusive and uncontainable joy during the final gospels of “Rocka My Soul”.
As it has for decades, Revelations continues to be a stunning example of a work canonized not just for its relevance to a particular season and setting, but one that provides a truly timeless account of a people’s heart and soul. Its production still feels seamlessly innovative though its devices have become common referents today, and its ability to carve out portraits of deepest sorrow and joy is equally luminous. The Ailey dancers of new generation are trying out their own interpretations of this classic, offering a youthful and gutsy fire, and the experience of seeing this treasured and critical work in person was a gift.
While the first act of Ailey II’s program in Park City provided an exhibition of jaw-dropping talent and the exceptionally high energy of this group, the second half was ultimately stronger, buoyed by the power of Revelations and the well-synthesized and stirring Stream of Consciousness. The ethos of Alvin Ailey’s description of the cultural outlook behind Revelations - “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful”- could well be applied as a tagline to the rest of the program and even the company itself. Just as the movement style of all four pieces catered heavily to the particular grandness and articulate strengths of an Ailey-trained dancer, the thematic content of each fell in line with one fervent prescription for triumph in optimism, faith, and harmony of the soul.
Emily Snow holds a BFA from the University of Utah and has spent several seasons dancing with Central West Ballet in California. She is currently performing in Salt Lake with Municipal Ballet Co.