Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ailey endlessly rocking: Company commissions bold choreographic mini-drama from one of its own dancers

By Paul Horsley

There’s a part of each of us that wants to believe in the legend of the happy American family. Hope Boykin wants to believe in it, but she seems to know its perils. Family is the subject of the choreographer and Ailey dancer’s remarkable Go in Grace, a new work that formed the heart of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company’s program on Friday at the Midland Theatre. Featuring the gospel vocal sextet Sweet Honey in the Rock — who were onstage throughout, moving about and interacting with the dancers like some funky Greek chorus — it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Every two years the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brings to Kansas City several programs of classic Ailey choreography and newly commissioned works. These commissions often spark bold works that Kansas Citians get to see here before they go to their “official” world premiere in New York. (The Ailey company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, as the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey who present them locally celebrates its 25th year. On Thursday the residence had opened with a program of excerpts from Ailey classics.)

Boykin’s piece is like a mini-musical, with gospel-tinged songs composed by the singers of Sweet Honey, who perform them live as they interact with the dancers onstage in an unusually organic fashion. They provide rhythm, harmony and melody using only their voices (and occasional commentary, like “Hmm, I don’t know about that” or “Keep your legs closed tight”), which leaves them free to serve as what Boykin calls the Community. They’re like a group of “church ladies” who support and encourage good behavior. Boykin’s costumes and Al Crawford’s lighting design help delineate singers from dancers, with the former dressed in cooler green hues and the latter in “hotter” orange hues.

Boykin’s drama centers on a nuclear family of four, and she shrewdly introduces us first to Father and Mother (Amos J. Machanic, Jr. and Renee Robinson), whose over-the-top love for each other finds expression in a pas de deux of passionate jitterbug energy. Along come Brother (Matthew Rushing) and Little Girl (Rosalyn Deshauteurs), and the rest of the drama shows the struggle between family love and the temptations of the world, represented by two hoodie-sporting “Boyz” (Boykin’s term) from the street. A series of vignettes follows that will be familiar to any parent: Little Girl dances on Father’s feet, then as she grows older she is tempted to dress provocatively but warned against its dangers; meanwhile Brother is wooed to join the Boyz (Antonio Douthit and Kirven J. Boyd), whose flailing, near-hip-hop movements contrast sharply to the family’s more balletic tone.

The drama comes to a climax when Father becomes so overcome with the struggle to keep the family together that he engages in a passionate sort of dance of death — explosive, sorrow-tinged, Ailey-inspired. Brother returns to the fold, remorseful: Rushing dances his own moving lament. (“Say ‘Yes’ to the Spirit of Jesus, Brother, Say ‘Yes,’” sing the ladies.) Little Girl realizes that innocence lost is no picnic. She’s on her own now, but not entirely: The Community is there to guide, and it concludes with the title song, “Go in Grace."

Go in Grace is a remarkable piece, and on Friday it touched a nerve in the audience, which gave it an energetic standing ovation. At times it felt a bit episodic, perhaps, even disjointed: I would have preferred to hear whole songs rather than a sequence of what felt like bits of songs. Moreover, it felt odd to me that the Community focused its whole energy on Little Girl’s struggle while letting Brother take to the streets virtually without comment. Nevertheless I believe this could become a repertoire standard — as long as Sweet Honey in the Rock is around to perform it.

The program opened with Maurice Béjart’s Firebird from 1970, a politicized version of the 1910 original with a new story line: Nine dourly clad dancers in bowling-pin formation (minus one) are united to action against an enemy by a crimson-clad firebird (the remarkable, personable Clifton Brown, instead of the feather-clad ballerina of the original). He inspires the others, and at the end of his vigorous dance of death he’s replaced by another red-clad revolutionary angel. Removed from its original context of the radical 1960s, today Béjart’s vision almost looks like a love story.

George Faison’s appealing Suite Otis (1971) to songs of Otis Redding provided an uplifting if vaguely melancholic conclusion to the evening. Faison has tapped keenly into these songs’ emotional content, especially in the battle-of-the-sexes of “Can’t Turn You Loose,” the heavy-hearted pairing of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and the bittersweet comedy of “My Lover’s Prayer,” the latter like an entire, complex history of a relationship in miniature.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs again at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 15 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 16, at the Midland Theatre, 13th and Main.