I’ve seen better Ailey shows than Thursday’s at the Auditorium, but they probably deserve a little slack. The company, already famous for going all-out, has yanked every stop for their 50th anniversary, evidenced by the far-too-long, way-too-self-congratulatory film they showed as a preamble to each program. These dancers are obviously being put through the wringer, hitting an obscene number of international and U.S. cities as part of a high-profile celebration that began over a year ago. They must be exhausted. I’m glad I chose the all-Ailey retrospective montage program over the newer work they brought for Wednesday’s and the weekend’s shows, which I did partially due to lukewarm reviews for the two big premieres but mostly because the anniversary program’s selections were sourced from fourteen dances by Alvin Ailey, dating from between 1958 and 1988 (they were also presented in chronological order). I figured a lot of it was going to go into storage at least until the 75th, and with obscure repertory being as unpopular as it is these days—programming approached as curation is most definitely out—I needed to see these pieces while I could.
For example, it’s hard to believe something like the men’s duet excerpted from 1970’s Streams would appear under any other circumstances: Clad only in periwinkle tights, Clifton Brown and Matthew Rushing performed a wickedly difficult, severe invention to music by Miloslav Kabelac that could only be Nixon (and Béjart, and MacMillan, and Cranko) Era experimentalism. I have a soft spot for the stuff: Some…okay, a lot, of the dance field’s acceptance of oddball formalism has been swept under the rug of mandatory beauty and preferences for predictability over the crapshoot of risk, but in pieces like Streams you really see how much big choreographers once felt supported in making unabashedly arcane investigations. The irony is, of course, that big choreographers remain coddled no matter their choices—I’m looking at you, Wheeldon—but for whatever reasons the field as a whole has slowly, firmly trended away from an atmosphere of intellectualism and toward a paradigm of the mainstream hit. (I’d personally rather be outraged than bored, but no one’s asking for my opinion on such matters.)
Also decidedly out of fashion is the acceptability of straight vocabulary in stage work. Sections like the ones presented from 1971’s Choral Dances, 1986’s Caverna Magica and the petite allegro from 1974’s fabulous Night Creature are essentially classroom exercises. School recitals notwithstanding, this just isn’t done anymore, and yet here they were, temps de quises galore—in masterworks by Alvin Ailey! It made for an interesting throughline that I probably never would’ve noticed in his works, this continually-resurgent interest in and appropriation of straight-up ballet.
But it’s the highly formal, sublimely musical vocabularily-modern solos and duets for which Ailey is famous, and rightly so. 1971’s Cry, the solo that made the already-well-known Judith Jamison a bona fide star, is perhaps the best example of the profound timelessness, simplicity and power for which he had an innate, sure hand. Two duets, 1972’s The Lark Ascending (danced by the insanely gifted Linda Celeste Sims) and Hidden Rites (1973), had little in common aesthetically but both showed how he continued to refine the form long after Fix Me, Jesus.
The montage benefitted from a few excursions into Ailey’s “party” pieces, from works like Blues Suite (1958), For “Bird” – With Love (1984) and Opus McShann (1988). I’m not so much a fan of these, but it’s nothing personal: I don’t like it when Tudor and Balanchine do it either. It did however break up the action, and kept the evening from turning into a rapid-fire succession of showstoppers. Plus, Ailey (especially in For “Bird”) makes the choreography of body language and gesture look deceptively simple: Even in a milieu with a dozen distinct characters and overlapping lines of “dialogue,” every tossed glance and flirty snap reads clear as crystal: It’s impossible to miss a thing.
I suppose I should say something about Revelations (1960). It’s brilliant. Everyone says so, and everyone’s right. I first saw it around the age of 10 and when I saw it for the second time, eight years later, I remembered almost every moment. I Been ‘Buked is, along with Night Creatures, one of Ailey’s best compositions. The staccato gestures—stuttering arms, trilling hands, quick gossipy glances—are pure genius (and foolproof: Their integrity as moments is built-in, which is to say if a dancer is doing it at all, they’re doing it right). I’ve always remembered it as a long piece, but it really isn’t; Thursday Revelations flew by, even the (wholly unnecessary yet understandably traditional) encore of Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.
If there’s anything that truly disappointed me about the evening, it was the audience. Although well-attended as usual—nearly full—and some of the best people watching of the season, I heard nary a peep out of the crowd for the first two acts, and then even during I Wanna Be Ready (danced outstandingly by Kirven J. Boyd) and Sinner Man there were almost no baritone mmm-hmms and go ons. No one snapped a finger. I know you’ve got more sass than that, Chicago.