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Ailey 2007 City Center

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Saturday eve December 1, 2007

Snow and Peace

Awakened this Manhattan Sunday morning by the sound of one shovel clearing the season's first dusting of snow, and the silence of no car driving down the street, last night's performance of Twyla Tharp's The Golden Section came first to mind. This glorious finale to her drama The Catherine Wheel is, within context, the power of purity to transcend trouble. In the case of the plot the troubles are those of a modern family; in the case of 4th C Saint Catherine of Alexandria, known as "the pure one", it was the torturer's wheel. The Saint overcame the wheel by the power of her purity: she broke it with a touch, they had to behead her instead. Tharp saves her family with the purity of pure dance. Ms. Tharp continues to spread this dance throughout America: since Ailey, to Ballet Austin, Ballet Arizona, Louisville Ballet.

The special purity of the city's first snow lies in its easy perfection, simple white, while subsequent snows seem always tainted by soot and dogs. This ease also marks the change in Ailey's performance of the work from last season to this. While the debut was thrilling, one could see the hard parts were hard, especially some of the leaps-into-catches. This year they dance The Golden Section in one ecstatic arc, right through to the spiritual rainbow created by Mr. and Mrs. Sims for its finale. To add Deborah Jowitt's words, its "blazing trajectories creating an ode to valor and dedication." Of the dancers, as of the Saint.

The evening began with Bejart's Firebird (1970's revision with its nod to the Paris student's revolution). Back then it was the political story that stood out, but the clarity of time and of Ailey's dancers has changed that. Apollinaire Scherr's Newsday review of the company's opening night gala was devoted solely to Firebird, including an analysis of why this company is so much more suited to the work than is a traditional ballet company.


When ballet-trained Europeans have performed Béjart, they've been so impressed by his use of modern dance's bent limbs and descents to the floor that they've enveloped the steps in a fervid haze. As Americans, the Ailey dancers are heirs to a rich modern dance tradition; they can afford to dwell on detail. In the process, they prove that Béjart can stand up to the scrutiny.

The ballet opens with a grouping of nine Mao-suited friends, three women and six men, likely fairly happy students. Clifton Brown and Linda Celeste Sims are together in front. Gradually Mr. Brown seems to become the group's focal point till he suddenly emerges from the center of the group, red-clad. His role seems to be that of their self-selected spiritual leader, or perhaps guru (the choreography has hints of classical Indian dance). The religious nature of his role shines brightly when they sit in a circle, his back to us, and he blesses, then passes an invisible bowl -- is it of tea, a la Zen, or a chalice of blood wine? -- for each to partake in warmly solemn ritual. Amidst his friends Mr. Brown embraces Ms. Sims, then as she lies before him he reaches his hands high in prayer. Is he asking for blessings upon their union, or is he himself blessing it? The situation turns martial and he leads his group in battle. Mortally wounded, he contemplates his/the group's future. They gather 'round. What follows could have many interpretations. For me, I think as he lies dying or dead they begin to compose his legend. As such they transform this holy man into a Holy Man, who then appears larger than life as a Phoenix, danced by the significantly larger Jamar Roberts. Mr. Brown remains active, perhaps now a living Spirit, and is held aloft by Mr. Roberts in the form of The Crucified. Having seen this work three decades ago, leads danced by stars of the POB, I can say that I agree with Scherr's preference for Ailey. What had been allegory is enriched to Myth. It was a great performance, so full of nuance, of fine detail, by Clifton Brown.

This program on the varieties of religious experience concluded with Revelations, to live music. The singers were fully deserving of the critical praise from the opening night gala. What joy: three dances, three appearances of Alicia J. Graf! Earlier in the evening she soared in the grandest of jetes. Here, the Balanchine ballerina, partnered by that Phoenix of a dancer Jamar Roberts, danced Fix me, Jesus with Farrellesque granduer of line and purity. And one last gift, Renee Robinson! Joining in the rythmic clapping during the Rock My Soul encore is, I guess, the closest I'll ever get to dancing.

I miss you, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood.

'Tis the Season!

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Just a quick post to say how much I enjoyed the Ailey company in Bejart's Firebird. This was the first time I'd seen it, in fact I believe it's the first time I've seen any Bejart. After having grown up with Fokine's and Balanchine's versions it was amazing to me how perfectly Bejart's choreography suited the score and how well the score suited the story he chose to tell. Usually I find that with really well known set pieces (like black swan, rose adagio etc) anything other than the original choreography just "feels wrong" and I expected to have that reaction to this version of Firebird. Not so. Bejart's choreography was extremely musical and his interpretation was very powerful. It was also very well danced with Antonio Douthit in the main role. Although the movement idiom was completely different, some how it reminded me of the "Steps in the Street" section of Graham's Chronicle. It's probably not for ballet purists, but if you enjoy a ballet/modern dance blend I'd recommend it highly.

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December 11, 15 (eve), 2007

Flowers, for Janis and Linda

By the time of her 1967 Monterey Pop triumph Janis Joplin had been a part of the Haight-Ashbury scene, on and off, for four years. She died in Los Angeles three years later, a victim of Heroin. I saw her first at the Avalon in San Francisco shortly after Monterey and was both stunned and won by the extreme intensity of her music, that could slice to your heart with the intensity I've only experienced from one other musician, John Coltrane. I saw her last at Madison Square Garden in December, 1969. Alvin Ailey made a dance about her life and death, Flowers, back in 1971. But any memories from seeing his dance then did not prepare me for the catharsis given by Linda Celeste Sims in two performances seen this week.

The dance begins with Ms. Joplin returning to her dressing room after an early successful performance, happy, carrying a bouquet of flowers, and smoking a filter-tip cigarette. We are hearing her Big Brother and the Holding Company recording of Down on Me. Six paparazzi arrive to take photos, and Janis poses willingly for them. The room empties, she goes to her dressing table and downs a swig of Russian Vodka (odd, why they didn't use her favorite, Southern Comfort). We also see her with six admiring men whose attention she first drinks in, but as she dances with them individually we begin to see a distrust/uncertainty develop within her. Probably not uncommon for a celebrity to feel that way, especially one who hadn't had such attention earlier.

The music turns to Blind Faith's Do What You Like. Clifton Brown enters, the Dealer, dressed in charcoal suit & tie, with a red silk cloth attached to his belt. An obvious reference to the feel-good drug-culture of the time (speed when she first moved to The City, but also heroin), he's even dressed like her 1964 dealer. The permissive music and seductive man combine, she weakens as the music grows hypnotically repetitive (...do what you like do what you like...). She rolls up her sleeve, he ties the red silk twice 'round, she goes to the floor helpless, and eventually rolls off to the wings... Mr. Brown creates his character not as an evil man, but even more terrifying, a man with a complete absence of good. By this point, Ms. Sims is ... Janis.

Pink Floyd supplies the next two pieces, Main Theme and Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up. The six men now become show biz silvery glitz. Janis loses reality... She enters with a very long train. It is red to match the red silk heroin symbol. Quickly the men and Ms. Joplin are all covered by it. They seem to get very rough with her, almost a suggestion of rape, but perhaps just a symbol of horror... Ms. Sims gives a silent scream of terror, even evoking the painting by Munch. Every step a stagger, every glance toward nowhere.

It is the end of another concert and Janis is pacing from side to side during the bows. We're now hearing her sing Kosmic Blues. She is showered by roses the color of her heroin silk. And one bouquet that recalls that first one. She falls to the floor. Dead. The paparazzi are back.

Linda Celeste Sims delivers one of the all-time great performances of my life. Flowers was the middle dance on each program. Neither the Christianity of Revelations that followed on Tuesday nor the Eastern Mysticism of Firebird on Saturday could give consolation.

Earlier on Tuesday Ailey's 1970 The River featured fabulous ballet dancing in The Lake section by that dream partnership Alicia J. Graf and Jamar Roberts, while Renee Robinson and Clifton Brown created joy in Twin Cities as the "V" of the corps advanced mightily behind them for the final tableaux.

Saturday's program began with Camille A. Brown's subway-lite dance The Groove to Nobody's Business, but it was the following Unfold by Robert Battle that brought down the house. Matthew Rushing partnered Ebony Haswell, a dancer new to the company. There was a lot of floor work. At one point early on he appeared to be raising her from the floor. But then I could see he wasn't helping her up at all. The audience burst into applause seeing this feat of self-levitation. She has a magical combination of strength and fluid grace. This flexible dancer is one to see!

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