It was in the middle of “Wade in the Water,” a section of Alvin Ailey’s signature work Revelations, when our row started to rock from side to side. My first thought was that members of the audience–either very heavy ones or several of them–were swaying in their seats to the music, for it felt rhythmic at first. Or was it a Disney-esque added feature of the work? I wouldn’t have ruled it out, not in Orange County, CA, nor at an Ailey performance. Just the other night, for instance, I had heard someone compare a performance by AAADT to a rock concert, an uncommon thing to hear in the modern dance sphere. And certainly rock concerts shook. Right?
It was an earthquake, my California-born companion told me matter-of-factly. Dancers Matthew Rushing and Kelly Robotham were onstage, smiling brightly, stepping confidently into balances on one leg. I looked up and feared that the heavy ceiling of Segerstrom Hall would crash down onto the packed house any minute; our bodies would finally be recovered months, if not years, later. In the time it took my mind to race to these improbable conclusions, the earthquake had ended. We looked up. The dancers were dancing. It was as if they didn’t even know what had happened. Later, I learned that they didn’t know–although the dancers backstage, waiting to go on, did.
The evening opened with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, a contemporary ballet work with a striking white set and music by Jack White and Joby Talbot. Stylistically, this piece is outside the box for AAADT and is a good example of the work Artistic Director Robert Battle has done to bring a greater variety of contemporary repertory into the company. Light descended onto Jacqueline Green’s long, slender frame, and she performed a series of undulations with her upper body, occasionally extending one of her legs to 180 degrees. A solo performed by Sarah Daley was perfectly balletic while still achieving the off-kilter effect of contemporary work. Her presence, and the newly quiet music, commanded the audience into absolute silence. The piece shifted frequently from solos to duets to groups, incorporating intricate manipulations and several sequences that had a high level of difficulty. The movement, rather than seeming overtly show-offy, was an impressive display of choreography and skill, and, in it, the dancers each revealed their own dominant qualities, whether soft, hard, or fiery. The set framed it all, and an inset into the upstage “wall” provided an interesting point of entry and exit; lighting by Lucy Carter (and the use of a black scrim) gradually darkened the inset over time, providing an ambient sense of contrast behind the dancing.
Next came D-Man In The Waters, by Bill T. Jones, who was originally appointed into the Ailey family by Mr. Ailey himself, in 1983, to choreograph Fever Swamp. The work at present, too, felt swamp-like to me: the curtain rose to reveal green-lit wings and dancers entered wearing camouflage costumes, which had been re-created by Jon Taylor. The piece, set to Mendelssohn, was light and comical. Gestural motifs were repeated often, and unexpected turns such as two men who ran and were caught by two women each, then partnered, accentuated its originality. A belly slide coinciding with the music’s end finished the piece on literally a high note.
I’ve seen Revelations countless times, and the last thing I expected on Friday evening was to have anything new to say about it–it’s a cultural artifact, always perfectly executed by the incredible Ailey dancers. In fact, I closed my notebook before it began. But after the earthquake, which rumbled for no less than two minutes, during which the audience collectively whispered and worried and some people stood to leave, the remaining sections seemed brighter somehow. It was as if the dancers’ movements were performed with a more precise spark, and greater appreciation for the dance, than before the quake. “Ready” dancer Kirven Douthit-Boyd hinged as low as humanly possible before twisting and falling into his floor work. “Sinner man” soloists Marcus Jarrell Willis, Daniel Harder, and Kanji Segawa jumped high and turned furiously, ricocheting around 3, 4, 5 times. Even the women carrying their fans, led by Demetia Hopkins, seemed to fan faster. It could have been my imagination–or my own feelings of relief–but, seated close, I thought I saw a certain tenacity on their faces. Was it a feeling of invincibility? Of defiance towards Mother Nature’s discomfiting hiccup? Of simple amusement? If I had to guess, the dancers weren’t taking their performance for granted.