Lynn René Bayley
, July 2010
… these are two roughly hour-long programs made for Danish TV in 1986, three years before Ailey died, and it’s a distinct pleasure to hear him describe his own career path, the various dance styles that influenced him, and the way in which he formed and molded his company. In a nutshell, he always believed that dance should not be impersonal. He rejected the balletic aesthetic of “hiding behind a character” onstage. He believed that if you brought your own personality out through the choreography, it could only enhance the overall impact for the viewer. Also, as an African-American man who grew up during one of the most brutal periods of racial segregation, he believed in expressing the pains as well as the joys of the African-American experience. As he succinctly put it, he meant for his dances to carry a social message but his main guiding principle was that “these dances are entertaining.”
Four complete works are presented in the two programs. The first begins with Judith Jamison’s choreography of Divining. The beginning and end of this piece was brilliantly conceived, with excellent cross-movement of the dancers, filling the space and creating interest, but in the very middle the choreography lacked interest. In this one spot, Jamison did not fill the stage well or create enough movement, either in solo or group dancing, to sustain one’s attention. But this was another of Ailey’s guiding principles, to let his choreographers push the envelope, to use their intuition as dancers to succeed or fail on their own merits. He did not interfere in others’ creations.
The second piece in the first show was Ailey’s early-1960s staging of Revelations, set to spirituals and gospel music. It’s a shame that the performers of this prerecorded music went unidentified, as this was, to me, the most exciting and beautifully sung collection of such works I’ve ever heard. Ailey’s choreography is consistently brilliant and the dancers well chosen. Your attention never wavers from first moment to last. Particularly outstanding in this ballet were Danny Clark, Sharrell Mesh, and Renée Robinson in “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” April Berry and Kevin Brown in “Fix Me, Jesus,” Deborah Manning, Ralph Glenmore, and April Berry in “Wading in the Water,” and Dudley Williams, doing a virtuoso solo turn in “I Want to Be Ready.” Ailey was a genius at exploiting and highlighting the specific virtues of African-American dance history, both in the kind of steps he used and the way he had bodies move on stage. Most of the time his dancers went barefoot, which really put them on the mark. As a dancer, you have nowhere to hide and no auxiliary support without some sort of shoes. By this time in the program, I had come to realize that Williams and Manning were two of the most powerful and finely controlled dancers in the company. Their moves and muscle control almost defy belief.
The second program begins with a surprisingly modern dance choreographed by Talley Beatty, The Stack-Up. This is essentially club and hip-hop music, starting with Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Faces” and ending with the famed club piece “Get Up and Dance” by Alphonze Mouzon. Beatty’s choreography is consistently interesting, combining a more modern form of choreography, reminiscent of some of Michael Jackson’s best work, with the more elegant moves of the Ailey dancers. I didn’t care much for the piece in the middle, “Rockin’ It” by the Fearless Four, but I solved my dislike by turning the sound all the way down and just enjoying the dancers. Again, Manning and Williams were key standouts, even when they were part of a group of dancers. Excellence stands out regardless of context.
The second program ends with Ailey’s tour de force for solo female dancer, Cry. Jamison, who danced it originally in 1971, states that they had little time for rehearsal, so her dress rehearsal was the actual performance! As she puts it, “My lungs was over here on the stage [pointing right], my heart was over here [pointing left], and physically I was somewhere in the middle!” Set to music by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro, and Chuck Griffin, Cry is the journey of an African-American woman from vestigial memories of slavery to social and then complete personal freedom. It requires not only phenomenal body control but also, as Ailey put it much earlier, that projection of one’s own personality through the dance. Obviously, Manning was a wise choice for this piece. Even in her simplest moves, and moments of stillness, your eyes are riveted on her, so complete is her body control and her fusion of movement with character. She made this difficult dance look not only easy, but also as if it were her very own personal expression rather than a projection of someone else’s choreography.
If you have any interest in modern dance, you simply cannot pass this disc up. Ailey’s timeless genius shines through the years, and is as engrossing—and entertaining—as he originally intended it to be.