Rarely does a pep rally serve as a prelude to a ballet. Yet Tuesday night, there was Robert Battle onstage at the Kennedy Center Opera House, urging a black-tie-optional crowd to make some noise.
“I heard you all are loud and raucous,” Battle said, after attempting to initiate a call-and-
response chorus of hellos. “You may be all dressed up, but you don’t have to act like it.”
Since taking the helm of the storied Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, he has made many changes in personnel and repertoire. In rallying the crowd for the company’s 30th run at the Kennedy Center, he seemed determined to put longtime fans at ease, even though what they were about to see was a stark departure from Ailey classics.
“Chroma,” the lead-off ballet, was created by the British choreographer Wayne McGregor for London’s Royal Ballet in 2006. Since then, it’s been adopted in North America by the National Ballet of Canada and the Boston and San Francisco ballets. Ailey is the first modern company to perform it, and the company’s take on it was not nearly as fierce and polished as the performances we’ve come to expect from a troupe that typically pairs perfection with insane athleticism.
Ailey’s dancers looked best during the solos and ensemble sections, especially a fantastic trio for three men that allows guys to manipulate each other as men would normally turn and flip women. Done well, McGregor’s partnering choreography resembles an elegant game of Twister — like someone spun a needle and ordered a ballerina to put her right heel on her partner’s right shoulder, then flip around and press a cheek against his ankle. (McGregor also has an annoying fetish with craning necks, and during “Chroma,” dancers dip their heads down and out far too frequently.)
Bear in mind that at the Royal Ballet, “Chroma” was created for two of the world’s great ballerinas — Sarah Lamb and Tamara Rojo — to perform with men who have spent half their lives turning them like tops. Still, it came as a shock Tuesday night to watch Glenn Allen Sims step in as a replacement cast member for the most difficult duet and very nearly drop Demetia Hopkins on her head.
The partnering needs work, and Ailey’s dancers may never execute these duets with the prowess of ballet’s stalwarts. One smart change from previous performances of “Chroma” was to costume Ailey’s dancers in short, colorful camisoles rather than skin-tone shaded apparel. The music, as orchestrated by Joby Talbot, is based on songs by the rock band the White Stripes. A structural backdrop allows dancers to step in and out of a giant frame, such that they come onstage like visiting automatons.
The most otherworldly dancer, by far, was Alicia Graf Mack, a tall, leggy native of Columbia, Md., who formerly performed on point with Dance Theater of Harlem. Battle casts her in roles that call for exquisite extensions, and on Tuesday she was wonderful in all three works on the program.
In addition to adding more balletic works to Ailey’s repertoire, Battle has acquired several classics by 20th-century choreographers. Two years ago at the Kennedy Center, the company danced Paul Taylor’s spritely romp “Arden Court.” Bill T. Jones’s ”D-Man in the Waters (Part I)” is a better fit for the Ailey, but it has the same flitting-on-the-playground feel. Jones made “D-Man” for his own troupe back in 1989, and it’s a far lighter piece than his more recent narrative-driven works. Accompanied by Mendelssohn’s melodic String Octet, the dancers form human maypoles, slide across the floor and rotate their arms as if out for a leisurely swim. The tell-tale indications that this is Jones’s choreography — and not a work by Taylor or Mark Morris — are the occasional robotic arm gestures and the costumes, a variation on combat fatigues.
The performance closed, as nearly all Ailey shows do, with “Revelations,” the iconic 1960 gospel suite created by the company’s founder. Graf Mack was back onstage as the statuesque Lady with the Umbrella, enthusiastically overseeing a baptism during the “Wade in the Water” sequence. This was no dialed-in, run-through-the-motions “Revelations.” Yannick Lebrun dashed through his “Sinner Man” solo as if determined to stomp out the flames of hell, and Rachael McLaren was the feistiest of the fanning church ladies who closed out the show with “Rocka My Soul.”
Ailey may not have not have conquered “Chroma,” but it’s entirely possible that in faltering slightly as they sought to learn something new, the dancers returned to what they knew looking stronger than ever. They earned that “raucous” applause that Battle knows his company will always receive in Washington, no matter what he asks them to dance.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater continues at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, with varied casting and repertory.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.