Awakening to Revelations from Alvin Ailey American Dance

Leigh Donlan reports from CalPerformances in Berkeley:

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle's AWAKENING (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Robert Battle’s AWAKENING (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

A commanding performance of Robert Battle’s Awakening, set to a futuristic score by John Mackey, with brilliant lighting design by Al Crawford, anchored Sunday afternoon’s performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at CalPerformances. Battle, the company’s artistic director, took us on a celestial journey of dissonance and harmony, that achieved a hard-earned liberation. Ghost-like bodies drifted in all-white against an ominous darkness. The music built to the arresting crash of a large metal door slamming shut, the dancers huddled together in fear. Periods of calm alternated with more crashes. A lone soloist – Jeroboam Bozeman – would break from the herd. We wondered if they were doing him more harm than good, often exalting him before he fell to the floor, writhing. The lighting intensified his journey, shifting from linear patterns to a scattered constellation, and created stunning visuals. The piece ended with a blazing blast of light flooding the stage, and a glorious image of a triumphant Bozeman bathing in its glow.

Another West Coast premiere and two longstanding audience favorites rounded out the program.

To a musical score by Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the premiere of Ronald K. Brown’s vibrant Open Door had a breezy island feel. The dancers were sultry and smooth, beginning with a heartfelt pas de deux from Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun. Four more couples entered then alternately dispersed into male and female groups. West African influences set chests undulating and legs lunging powerfully, with a pulsing sensation throughout, heightened by Crawford’s lighting design of sunset hues. A mambo scene highlighted the dancers’ moxie and added momentum. Some sections felt choreographically long-winded, yet the dancing remained engaging. These dancers are exquisite.

Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in the West Coast premiere of Ronald K. Brown's OPEN DOOR (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Matthew Rushing and Linda Celeste Sims in the West Coast premiere of Ronald K. Brown’s OPEN DOOR (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

The Joni Mitchell ballad, A Case of You, sung by Diana Krall, gifted us a delicious pas de deux from Rachel McLaren and Yannick Lebrun. An excerpt from Judith Jamison’s 2004 work, Reminiscin’, this piece yielded the raw emotion we expect from lovers – sensuality, passion, nuance and sensitivity. McLaren took many precarious leaps into Lebrun’s strong arms, always finding a firm and steady grasp that quieted her urgency. Their bodies rolled together like waves, sometimes in opposing rhythms. The hurts, eruptions and solitudes pass, and the luxuriously poetic piece finishes with Lebrun supporting McLaren’s outstretched body between his knees as they stare deeply into each other’s eyes.

Jamar Roberts and Jacqueline Green in Judith Jamison's A CASE OF YOU (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Jamar Roberts and Jacqueline Green in Judith Jamison’s A CASE OF YOU (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, the company’s signature piece, is new to me, but not to Sunday’s eager audiences who were cheering before the dancers emerged. And now I understand. Originally staged in 1960, the piece uses African-American spirituals, gospel songs and blues as a cathartic ritual for deep grief and cleansing joy, and is often the company’s closing piece. This American masterpiece is marked by Lester Horton’s powerful, grounded technique of momentum released into long, sweeping gestures. Highlights included Fix Me, Jesus, which showcased Belen Pereyra’s impressive promenade extensions with generous partnering by Michael Jackson, Jr. Marcus Jarrell Willis was phenomenal in I Wanna Be Ready, looking both lost and innocent in his spotlit solo. The closing Rocka My Soul rightfully brought the house down.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey's REVELATIONS at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley (Photo: Christopher Duggan)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Alvin Ailey’s REVELATIONS at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley (Photo: Christopher Duggan)

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