Alvin Ailey II

I was a little bit worried going into the Ailey II performance at the Rialto last night because I’ve been a bit depressed lately and I wasn’t sure that dance would breach the haze to give me a glimpse of something more joyful or meaningful than my dark musings had allowed of late. It didn’t help that I still have my notes from last year’s performance that I never managed to flesh out into a full post. Reviewing them before the show, I realized just how unmemorable it was. Looking over my descriptions of the pieces brought nothing to mind but that I felt that they weren’t really for me. This year, though, I felt like they really delivered.

The evening started with Psūkhe, a piece commissioned from Andrea Miller for the company. This is the fifth work of hers that I’ve seen and, though I didn’t feel it was the strongest, it was a solidly enjoyable composition. It was set to a couple of pieces of electronic music by Nicolas Jaar and the dancers were in fairly simple red costumes made up of tight movement pants, with the men bare chested and the women in tight haltertops. The piece was in two parts, with half the company dancing in each half. Through the first part, the half that was not dancing was sitting upon red stools as an almost majestic audience watching the first half of the show from behind the dancers. Their costumes were augmented with the men wearing red ruffs around their necks and the women in red robes. The lighting on the “audience” up stage was warm but the active dancers were under cool lights that made their skin look gray. The warmer lights followed the “audience” into the second part.

The choreography in both parts was full of Miller’s cleverness and wit. The first part leaned more towards negative affect, dramatic and expressive but seemingly apropos of nothing. Miller is very good with expressing the deep and sad side of human emotion – I loved both Mama Call and the duet Dust, for example, but both of these have distinct subjects. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am perfectly fine with people making others laugh or smile or feel awe for no particular reason but that imposing negative emotions – making people feel sad with you or hurt or worried – feels manipulative if there isn’t something meaningful to say with it. Brooding is fine when you have something to brood over, but otherwise you should probably just get therapy and leave your audience out of it. When I see this kind of “moving” work on the stage and I don’t feel that it has a concrete subject then I can’t help but feel like the artist is being pretentious to make up for not having anything real to say. While I found this part of the work interesting to watch, I might have found the whole thing forgettable were it not for the lighter tone and humor of the second part. This had all the wit and cleverness of the first but felt a little less showy and a lot more fun. Taken as a whole, the piece was enjoyable and interesting, if not the best that I’ve seen from Miller.

My favorite piece of the evening was another that was commissioned for the company: Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s Still, which was about Black lesbians and gay men during the Harlem Renaissance. Costumes were, once again, all of a single color: scarlet. Women were dressed uniformly in flowing dresses with sparkles on the fabric. The men were mostly in pants of varying lengths and differing styles of shirts under a pair of suspenders. Two men were in flowing vests over skirts that called to mind kikoi sarongs. I’m not sure this was intended, but those two read as a kind of underlying spirit of the community to me.

The piece was set to a composition by Byron Lamar Harris called The World of Man, which I think may have been composed for this work. Harris’ compositional style seems to be an amalgamation of any musical movement that has ever caught his attention. This was perfect for Douthit-Boyd’s choreography, which also seems to blend a number of styles from the history of modern dance. Both choreographer and composer managed to pull all of these sources into a coherent, incredibly interesting, and effectively expressive work.

Everything began with the curtain still down. Ominous music played for a few bars before the curtain came up on a vibrant social dance scene. From here Douthit-Boyd took us on a tour of Gilded-age Harlem from his perspective, exploring the threats, support, outrage, fun, and, of course, love that was part of the period and place for queer Black men and women of the day. It was remarkably engrossing and often quite moving.

The evening concluded with Bradley Shelver’s Where There Are Tongues. This was also the final piece of the performance last year and my notes from then work just as well this time. It was set to (mostly) a capella music by Lo Còr De La Plana, which was in Occitan. I had to look it up last time after the show because as it was playing I kept picking up words here and there that I thought were Spanish and French but not entirely sure. At the time I thought it might be Catalan but apparently the two languages are pretty similar and there was even a time when Catalan was grouped together with Occitan and considered dialects of the same language. The costumes seemed to be going for some sort of stylized 17th century something or another and the choreography kind of seemed to be depicting a series of scenes from village life. There was a sort of folkish dancing implied less by the movement language and more by the blocking. There was a lot of fun and clever stuff in it but it was also very forgettable. I literally recognized nothing from it and I saw it just last year. And while it was clever and fun, the choreography wasn’t quite as interesting or striking to me as what was in either of the previous works. That’s not to say it wasn’t good or that I didn’t enjoy watching it, but I really wish that they’d ended the program with the Douhthit-Boyd; Shelver’s piece would have worked wonderfully as a palate cleanser between Miller and Douhthit-Boyd’s works.

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