More so than any other major dance company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater carries an aura of social, moral and even spiritual righteousness. It’s not just the dancers’ exquisite athleticism and peerless commitment that convey this and transfer such a rush to the audience. It’s also the artistic content, especially when it directly engages with human virtues.
The obvious example is “Revelations,” the company’s closer that guarantees a standing ovation, as its gospel score and images of strength and fellowship build to a roar that engulfs you and lifts you, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Each piece on the Ailey company’s opening program at the Kennedy Center Opera House had this effect. “Revelations,” of course, worked its spell at the evening’s end. Before then, there was Twyla Tharp’s ecstatic “The Golden Section” to bowl us over, as well as the local premiere of “Members Don’t Get Weary,” by Ailey dancer turned choreographer Jamar Roberts, who took on the current unsettled social climate.
But with all of the inspiration onstage, hints of tension within the company emerged at the annual gala benefit after-party. Breaking with tradition, the Ailey dancers didn’t show up for it. There were whispers of a boycott. (Shouts, really, above the music). On Instagram, the dancers are directing followers to a new account called Artists of Ailey, which references their union. They have been in contract negotiations since December.
In an email on Wednesday, an Ailey spokesman wrote that talks are going forward “with a positive, respectful approach.” AGMA, the dancers’ union, said in a statement, also on Wednesday, that the artists boycotted the gala “based on management’s failure to adequately address the group’s substandard wages and benefits.”
Spurning the gala is quite a statement, but the evening’s performance didn’t give any indication of the unrest to come. Only in looking back on it can you ponder the ironies. “The Golden Section,” with its irresistible dance score by David Byrne, is the finale of a longer work by Tharp titled “The Catherine Wheel,” after the medieval torture device of the same name. The full piece focuses on a dysfunctional family and its torments. But the finale — the part that Ailey performed — is pure catharsis. The earthly traumas are past; this is the hard-won entry into the divine.
The dancers, in their shorts and miniskirts, look and move like celestial athletes, and “The Golden Section” can come across as a parade of heroes. But these heroes are all tenderly interconnected. One dancer’s movement sets off another’s. As the beat gallops, a woman runs at her partner, knocking into his shoulder; this sends him spinning like a column of gold light. Another woman is held aloft by three men; they swing her by her limbs like she’s a human jump rope, then — whoosh — they fly her high again, and bear her like a goddess on their shoulders.
At the end, one dancer sprints toward another, who has tucked himself into a ball; she uses him as a springboard to leap into the wings, and just before we’re plunged into darkness, we see her trailing leg streaking through space like a vanishing gold-tipped bird.
Transcendence was also a theme of “Members Don’t Get Weary.” Roberts’s music choice was a triumph: John Coltrane’s otherworldly journeys by saxophone, “Dear Lord” and “Ole.” Coltrane may not rise instantly to mind as great dance music, but Roberts has a fine ear, and his dancers captured the ineffable questioning in the jazz, its winding paths and ultimate sense of spiritual freedom. In her solo, Jacqueline Green made frustration and release palpable as she shook and tossed her long limbs like whips.
At the top of the evening, Ailey funders spoke to the audience about the company’s recent engagement in Memphis, and its upcoming tour to Birmingham and Selma, Ala., scheduled in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. To be sure, there is no better arts entity than Ailey to give poetic shape to the spiritual themes of King’s work; yet is it as well-functioning internally as it looks?
Dance companies are such purveyors of delight and human community that it’s tempting to think of them as big, happy families. The past couple of months have revealed just what dysfunctional families they can be. New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins resigned in January amid allegations of physical abuse and sexual harassment. Last week, American Ballet Theatre dancers came close to striking over contract talks, before reaching a tentative agreement.
The Ailey organization recently spent $25 million on expanding its Manhattan headquarters. Even so, the dancers’ actions indicate that things are not going so well within its walls.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is performing three rotating programs at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. kennedy-center.org.