Friday, May 04, 2012

The Ailey Company

On Wednesday night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I attended a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court” opened the performance, and it was the presence of “Arden Court” on the program that had enticed us into the theater.

“Arden Court”, from 1981, has a big reputation—and that reputation is probably warranted. A movement-for-movement’s-sake work, “Arden Court” is fresh, breezy and almost sleight-of-hand, marked by a peculiarly-American sophistication and elegance: open, offhand and guileless. The work is also typified by its indifferent and throwaway virtuosity, yet another peculiarly-American characteristic. I can understand the work’s enormous popularity and appeal, both in North America and Europe.

The Ailey staging was by Taylor himself, so presumably it was authoritative.

For music, Taylor used excerpts from the eight symphonies of British composer William Boyce, whose career fell precisely between the Baroque and Classical Periods. Boyce’s music is watered-down and refashioned (but elaborately-orchestrated) music borrowed from The Italian Baroque, pleasant but vacuous, as is virtually all music from The Galant—which is why, I believe, Taylor specifically chose such supremely unimaginative music. The music is objective, and featureless, unlikely to arouse emotion in the listener and unlikely to interfere with the listener’s thoughts; it provides an apt soundboard for dances not intended to be anything more than fun and energetic.

“Arden Court” needs to be re-designed and re-costumed. The designs look as if they had been borrowed from the designs for Glen Tetley’s “Voluntaries”—and modified with scissors.

The second work on the Ailey program was “Minus 16” by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. “Minus 16” was created for Netherlands Dance Theater II in 1999 and, according to the program booklet, had been “adapted” for the Ailey company by the choreographer.

It would not be inaccurate to describe “Minus 16” as exceedingly eclectic. “Minus 16” includes a little bit of everything: a little Kurt Jooss, a little Martha Graham, a little Joyce Trisler, a little Lar Lubovitch, a little Paul Taylor, a little Pina Bausch—and more than a little Pilobolus. What “Minus 16” did not include was anything original—or good.

The score, too, was eclectic—it featured popular music from all over the world, all of it mindless. America was represented by Dean Martin.

The program concluded with Ailey’s own “Revelations”, which generally closes Ailey programs.

“Revelations” includes very little of pure dance interest—yet, as a theater work, it succeeds on its own terms. It is well-designed and well-constructed, and goes on not a moment too long (Ailey cut the work in half in the years immediately following its 1960 premiere). “Revelations” is, however, anything but an immortal masterpiece; its appeal is founded more upon sociology than art.

It is regrettable that Ailey is remembered today largely for “Revelations” and little else. The commercial success of “Revelations” has come to define the artist—and to overshadow his other work, much of which is far more complex. I suspect the Ailey company would have retired “Revelations” long ago were it not for the fact that “Revelations”, by a mile, is the company’s biggest box-office draw.

Ailey was a wonderful choreographer. His work had a remarkably wide range. “Revelations” does not represent him at his best.

Ailey’s finest works are seldom—if ever—seen. “The River”, to Duke Ellington’s score, should be in the permanent repertory of every American ballet company. The ballets Ailey created for Harkness Ballet are in desperate need of revival and revaluation. Ailey’s dances for Barber’s “Antony And Cleopatra”, which opened the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966, should be seen after decades of neglect. Ailey’s entire European oeuvre needs to be remounted and reassessed.

The man’s scope far exceeded “Revelations”.

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