Miami native Robert Battle made a triumphant return as the new artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a position he won in 2011. As the third director of this influential dance company, Battle will be playing a major role in American dance culture and everyone is watching to see what he will bring to the company’s already substantial legacy.
Opening the company’s Miami performances at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Battle stepped out to greet the supportive local audience with a few jokes and shout-outs and a small piece of his compelling story of a childhood in Liberty City. What then followed was proof that the Ailey company will be breaking new ground under his leadership. The Miami performances included two different programs of both the old and the new. We saw Revelations, again, and its annual inclusion on every single night is starting to drain the life out of an otherwise glorious piece. Thankfully, the tired pleasure of the overly familiar was balanced by Battle’s new commissions.
Choreographer Paul Taylor’s Arden Court was a specimen of lovely proportions and clean beauty. One might have thought it to be pure ballet were it not for fleeting eccentricities. In partnering, the women stood on — or curled into — little crevices in the mens’ hips and backs. The shapes of the pairs were sweet, silly, as innocent as an animal in its nest. We saw places of mating, the garden, the ballroom, wherever men and women explore each other’s possibilities. Supporting the humanity of the duets was an assembly of male dancers working the stage with strong leaps and decisive shapes. Arden Court made impressive use of the dancers’ classical training, serving as a point of contrast for Israeli-American choreographer Ohad Naharin’sMinus 16 that followed.
Minus 16 was a real stunner. This was not the first time it has been shown in Miami — but it’s the first presentation by the Ailey company. Minus 16 is so exhilarating, so nearly unfathomable that it does bear repetition, especially for the more conservative Ailey audience.
The piece began during intermission while the house lights were still on. A single performer goofed around onstage in a vaguely vaudeville way, drawing laughs with his physical gags. Since it was intermission, people were still coming in, talking and watching at the same time and the audience was freed to take a loose approach. The piece then exploded into images of populace, religion, institution, and collapse through repetitive and striking visual compositions. Towards the end, the dancers went out into the audience, returning to the stage with partners they had picked out of the crowd. Naharin’s choreography perfectly contained the natural, perhaps stunned reactions of the audience performers as they attempted to navigate their unexpected situation. It was funny, flawless, and miraculously composed.
If the Ailey dancers’ versatility was not already apparent, the second nights’ program opened with hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris’s Home. Here was lyrical vernacular, a long way from Taylor’s classicism. At its core, Home was about loving the beat. The piece was dedicated to those who have suffered from HIV, the disease that took Alvin Ailey and so many others. Joy of movement, capped at both beginning and end by solemn and nearly halted flow, suggested that whenever we mourn, we must also celebrate life.
These three new additions to the Ailey repertory not only indicate bold new directions for the company, they also cast the company of dancers as a highly pliable and immensely talented group. As raw material for new choreography goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. Battle has the opportunity and the tools to bring some of the world’s best ideas out of the underground and up onto the concert stage. He’s just getting started.
Photos: Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, February 23, 2012; courtesy of the Adrienne Arsht Center/ PHOTOS by Manny Hernandez