Alvin Ailey: The Show Must Go On

For only the second time in its 53-year history, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a new artistic director—choreographer Robert Battle—and the pressure is on. Beloved artistic director emerita Judith Jamison personally picked the 38-year-old Florida native to succeed her last July, and this year’s annual winter season at New York City’s City Center marks his first trial by fire. Admission tickets are even marked “Robert Battle’s First Season,” presumably for souvenir status. Was a recent Wednesday night performance an uphill Battle? Not at all.

With an affable introduction, the easygoing new director ingratiated himself to the audience, told jokes (“Someone asked me if we were doing ‘Revelations’ this year,” he said of the company’s ever-enduring signature piece), and soon stepped aside to get the show on the road. Ailey’s five-week engagement included the Battle-choreographed pieces “The Hunt,” “In/Side,” and “Takademe”—as well as “Love Stories,” his collaboration with Jamison and Rennie Harris—but none were performed that evening. Instead, the night started with veteran dancer Renee Robinson hosting everyone through the different suites of “Uptown,” a meditation on the Harlem Renaissance choreographed by Matthew Rushing.

“My name is Victoria,” Robinson began (for the victories of the black community?), and off she went celebrating W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and various aspects of 1930s Black America. Rent parties, Harlem’s famed Cotton Club and more were fêted by the dancers in nine different suites for close to 30 minutes. Projected James Van Der Zee photographs of Marcus Garvey, an old Alpha Phi Alpha basketball team, and the Black Yankees of the Negro League accented different portions of “Uptown,” Renee Robinson reappearing to comment on the action. Robinson—the company’s sole remaining dancer chosen by the late Ailey himself—shimmied in high heels and joined in the Charleston, helping demonstrate the dances of the Harlem Renaissance era with the rest of the troupe. It was an auspicious beginning.

An intermission followed, and then: “The Evolution of a Secured Feminine,” choreographed by Camille A. Brown. The relatively brief piece featured Rachael McLaren wearing a stingy-brim fedora with a tube top underneath a bisected suit jacket; she embodied both the masculine and feminine. “I don’t know where my man is,” sang Betty Carter’s “Tight,” as McLaren performed nimble, frenetic movements. “What is he doin’? I been looking and looking and looking all over.” Music switched to “Guess Who I Saw Today,” as she incorporated a chair and cigar props and mirrored the song’s revelation about her man’s cheating heart.

“Episodes” followed nine dancers through a series of vignettes involving physically and emotionally abusive relationships. While the earlier “Uptown” had its moments, the presence of an actual narrator explaining the suites had a subtle dumbing-down effect. “Episodes” needed no narration; the skill of the dancers was enough. And the twirling parasols and sanctified gospel of the Ailey chestnut “Revelations” is such a familiar finale to most that a few patrons left the City Center early to avoid it.

Throughout the night Robert Battle’s personal stamp was a bit hard to discern, if only because none of the dances were new. (“Uptown” dates back to 2009; “The Evolution of a Secured Feminine” débuted in 2007.) “Episodes,” the highlight of the night, was a 1987 piece by choreographer Ulysses Dove, and everything closed out with the rollicking “Revelations.” New productions for the season included both “Journey” and “Streams,” and three company premieres were performed on other nights: “Takademe,” “Minus 16” and “Arden Court.” Hiphop choreographer Rennie Harris served up the world premiere of “Home” this year, all of which speak to Battle’s contribution to the company. But that Wednesday night, though spectacular, could have been produced by Jamison in 2010.