Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ailey II Repertory Favorites

(writing this got me to thinking about how I watch performances. I took a friend’s extra ticket to this performance last minute and was not intending to review it. I didn’t watch it with the normal note-taking, detail-oriented mind I often use as an audience member. Yet somehow I felt compelled to write about it after, as if putting it into words helped me make sense of what I had seen. Just a curious observation…And I also wrote this fast, three days after the actual performance instead of what I would normally do if writing ‘real’ criticism.)

Last weekend I got to see Ailey II perform for the first time. The main Ailey company is fantastic, full of powerful bodies, vivid personalities, and enough strength to choke a horse. The second company looks like just that: a group on their way to greatness but not quite there yet.

All of the 12 young dancers have the technique and very obvious work ethic to meet the demands of the Ailey name. Yet only a few seem marked by that special something onstage that distinguishes a real professional. It’s an unnamable presence different from the artistry of classical ballet or facial expressions of musical theater that set one apart. Most of the works on the program offered defined moments of individual attention for each, which made the distinction clear.

The Repertory Favorites program included four works made in the past two years. Is it significant that no repertory choreography by Ailey himself was included? Instead we have pieces from the junior company’s associate artistic director, Troy Powell, company dancer Chang Yong Sung, George Faison, and the standout: Christopher L. Huggins.

Powell’s opener, “The External Knot” garnered a great response from the audience. The evening I went Renaldo Gardner was featured. He moved with intention, as though some force rippled through his muscles. In choppy separate sections the dancers moved as couples, in smaller groups, and in unison. Powell’s choreography uses a lot of cannons, where the dancers repeat the same phrase beginning a count or two after each other. Al Crawford’s lighting design was perhaps the most interesting aspect, with a series of diamond shapes projected on the backdrop. But with the same Philip Glass score that accompanies Twyla Tharp’s masterpiece, “In the Upper Room,” it’s hard not to compare the two at Powell’s loss, despite their major differences.

“Requiem,” a duet of exacerbated contemporary movement for Renaldo Gardner and Jarvis McKinley, followed. Both men are superb dancers and complimented each other well in the harsh choreography. At times they would reach across violently to each other’s faces, barely missing contact before yanking away as if removing a liquid mask.

The highlight of the performance was by far Huggins’ “When Dawn Comes…” Four women begin curled up in a pointy pool of sunlight. They dance in lovely long, flowy, pale dresses designed by Jon Taylor. The men join and soon a couple dances a jarring pas de deux where the woman continually throws herself onto the man’s body, clearly aching for him in unrequited passion. He throws her. She jumps back on, clasping her arms and legs around his waist. At the end, all four women sprint to their men waiting in the four corners of the stage. They thrust themselves to the men. Barely catching them, they walk slowly to return the women to their beginning slumber in the dawn sunlight in silence.

A theatrical and fun “Movin’ On” concluded the evening with energy and pizzazz. The piece takes place in a ‘20s nightclub, complete with scatting music by Betty Carter. The dancers begin on red chairs in jazzy movements. Characters evolve throughout, allowing each dancer a moment in the spotlight, notably Megan Jakel. The only one in pointe shoes, she is featured playfully throughout. All of the dancers had smiles beaming by the end of the number, enjoying their work. And work it was for such a small, youthful company to put on a successful two week season.

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