December 9, 2013 5:56 pm

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center, New York – review

Wayne McGregor’s ‘Chroma’ proves a better fit for the company than Aszure Barton’s ‘Lift’
Daniel Harder and Ghrai DeVore of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Wayne McGregor's 'Chroma'©Paul Kolnik

Daniel Harder and Ghrai DeVore of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Wayne McGregor's 'Chroma'

The repertory troupe is one of those fine ideas that in practice rarely measures up. The hope is for dancers and dance to prove mutually enriching; the actuality is that unless they have grown up together they tend to paint each other in broad strokes. All the more so when the troupe’s reputation overwhelms its individual players, as in the case of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, iconic purveyor of spirited humanism in an African-American key. Despite the late founder’s enduring wish that his love child absorb influences beyond him, most choreographers, at least, have come and gone without making a dent.

Robert Battle – the company’s third artistic director, since Judith Jamison’s retirement a few years ago – seems intent on changing that. Gone are the rookie dance-makers whose case rested mainly on their status as former or present company members. Battle chooses work like a serious collector, for balance, contrast and potential to last – into the new year, anyway. For the current five-week season, Canadian Aszure Barton’s Lift is the flagrant exception that proves this new and evolving rule, to which the company premiere of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma submits in startling ways.

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I could have guessed Barton would misfire. The once-precocious choreographer whom Baryshnikov championed early may be older, but she is not going to grow up. She still imagines the body as a fat pimple of id, with uncontrollable impulse spurting from fingers, knees and collarbones: arresting the first time you encounter it, tiresome soon after. But for blockbuster companies – American Ballet Theatre and now Ailey – she tones things down, and has little left to say.

For Lift, she limited even the mildly perverse to one long duet in which a fierce Linda Celeste Sims had her nose glued to the chest of gentle, dignified giant Jamar Roberts like a baby to her mother’s breast. Otherwise, the neo-primitivist dance was only disconcerting for being so derivative. The 19-member cast formed tribal circles; it executed vaguely African steps. Even the mood felt unearned, shifting nonsensically from sorrowful to ebullient. Nevertheless, the generous, highly trained dancers gave it their all, as Ailey troupers are known to do.

Chroma, which landed McGregor his job as resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet in 2006, would seem to possess too much of a mind of its own to accommodate anyone else’s. But the Ailey dancers got into its bones, imbuing it with intrigue and unusual poignancy.

The English choreographer is fascinated by architecture: the joinery of bodies as much as spaces, the corners of walls as well as the sockets of hip and shoulder. At his best, wonky abstraction meets human struggle, with the mechanical drama of seams and joints taking on a heroic dimension. The Ailey dancers – steeped in dance theatre and with limbs less inclined to hyperextend than those of your average contemporary ballet star – brought out this virtue. They discovered in Chroma’s joint-popping declarative phrases and push-pull pas de deux a longing to slough off constraints more weighty than the limits of hip rotation.

Meanwhile, the men, dressed in the same camisole tops with spaghetti straps as the women, found in the choreographer’s preening, jutting, exclamatory poetry a queeny-ness I had not noticed before. The effect was liberating. Despite the multitude of gay dancers and fans, popular dance companies have been slow to show what they are made of. With a nudge from Chroma, Ailey stepped out.


Until January 5, alvinailey.org

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