A few years ago I found myself in a packed theater in a small town in Maine. The Waterville Opera House is one of those gems that we want to keep close; complete with scrolled sides and ornately framed, curving proscenium, an orchestra pit, and sloped seating. Not to mention people with the arts in their veins. On that particular evening, the Opera House was playing host to Ailey II, the brainchild of Alvin Ailey who began the ensemble in 1974 by gathering together the most promising scholarship students from the Ailey School to study, perform and teach.
There is something hungry about the Ailey II dancers. Most of them are, by the very nature of the program, brand new and eager. They can do what most dancers in major companies can do, but they are still “en route.” That makes all the difference. Their potential sparks off their bodies, their dreams of success, within their grasp but just beyond, ignite the air. Their movements are, therefore, full of the quality that makes dance joyful. It pours off the stage and picks up the audience and makes us all, even the hardiest hardy-Mainer leap to his feet. During that particular performance, mistakes were made, entrances botched. At least one dancer’s legs trembled as his partner flew through the air to brief safety in his arms. But being able to see the human, his frailty, his vulnerabilities, underneath the awe-inspiring virility of the dancer, is what makes that kind of performance memorable, and other, more perfect, ones, utterly forgettable. Their grand finale, a completely exhilarating, defiant and sexy interpretation – complete with some pursed mouths and neck action – of the spiritual, ‘Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,’ was the perfect ending.
Last night I was reminded of that performance when I went to see Philadanco at the Perelman Theater here in Philly. The program, New Faces, showcased the work of four young choreographers working with the talented ensemble. Again, the most striking of the performances were not the ones that were most technically perfect. The somber, controlled and well executed Red Envelope (Zane Booker, World Premiere) had less to offer than the story-told vibe of Be Ye Not (Hope Boykin, World Premiere) which was both moving in its depiction of the desperation of staying out/fitting in, as it was exuberant in the way it dramatized that tension with one just-short-of-perfect dancer and the shoal like symmetry of the rest of the troupe. And while Rapture (Tony Powell, Company Premiere)was beautiful to watch and uplifting, with its theme of the ebb and flow of emotional and spiritual being, its very fluidity lulled the mind. On the other hand, Those Who See Light (Camille A. Brown, World Premiere) which consisted of all the dancers moving now together, now apart in a sort of crazy-making, syncopated urgency which brought to mind mysterious worker bees striving at some unending task in a different corner of the planet, had the edgy, street-creds of using every part of the dancer including and most specially, their stomach muscles heaving rhythmically with the music, to draw us in. Having made those distinctions, however, I also have to say that they are negligible on the strength of the work of the choreographers themselves who have created something well outside the scope of the ordinary.
Both these things, the youth and future-focus of the Waterville performance and the creative spirit of the Philly show seem to have been captured in the latest experiment in happy ingenuity set to sweep the nation or, in this case, the world. Watch, listen, enjoy. The fact that the “starter version” of the track was done by the now deceased Roger Ridley just adds to what is left behind. Click for an unforgettable rendition of ‘Stand By Me.’