Most dance companies are started by one person who has the energy, charisma, and vision to inspire a group. That individual, usually the choreographer, imparts his or her own values, work ethic, and aesthetic to the company members. The leader guides the artists around them through the bureaucratic, financial, and structural challenges that face arts organizations around the world. But what happens when that leader is no longer?
Although it has been over three decades since Alvin Ailey passed away, his company continues to channel the spirit with which he led – both on and off stage.
This month, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will return to Israel with two programs that illustrate the company’s connection with the past and its commitment to evolving into the future.
What are the two dance programs?
Program A is a four-part performance including some of Ailey’s most prolific creations. The evening will consist of “Cry,” “Revelations,” “The River,” and “Night Creature.”
“Cry” is a solo piece created by Ailey as a gift for his mother in 1971. “The River,” which premiered in 1970, is the first collaboration between Duke Ellington and Ailey. Danced by the whole company, the piece is an allegory for birth, life, and death. “Night Creature” is a group piece also set to music by Ellington, performed since 1974. Finally, “Revelations,” the oldest and best known of these four creations, premiering in 1960, is not only one of Ailey’s signature works but also an American dance milestone. And although all of these works are decades old, audiences will find that they are performed today with the zeal and spirit of the original casts.
Program B features creations by three choreographers who express the current spirit of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their works. The evening will begin with “In a Sentimental Mood” by former company dancer Jamar Roberts, followed by artistic director Robert Battle’s “Unfold” and “Are You in Your Feelings?” by Kyle Abraham. The program will close with “Revelations.”
Roberts, 41, joined the company in 2002 and continued to dance through 2021. During that time, he developed his craft and was eventually appointed resident choreographer of the company.
“I always felt that the work of the resident choreographer is to make work that is very specific to the vision of the founder in a way that it holds on to the values of Alvin’s work but also to push it into present day,” he says.
“Alvin is known for doing a lot of theatrical work, it’s a dance theater type of work that showed black life. As you look at his work now, it looks and feels very vintage but then it looked very current. They were memories that he was portraying on stage,” explained Roberts in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
For Roberts, whose time in the troupe began many years after Ailey was no longer present, imagining how previous generations of dancers had worked was part of everyday life.
“I would call it a romance,” he said. “We hear the stories and the tales and we understand what I was all about. It becomes very romantic in the mind of the dancer and you want to place yourself back at that time when Alvin was alive. I think most of the dancers try to bring that to the work.”
Perhaps because of the romantic relationship he has with the past, in creating his fourth work for the company, Roberts focused on a couple.
“There’s a duet in one of Alvin’s pieces called ‘Blues Suite’ that I was inspired by. I took the color scheme, red and black, into the piece, as well as the tension between male and female, love and power. The piece takes place in a living room, the home of the male character. I wanted to create a world that feels very domestic,” he explains.
Roberts’s piece brings out a specific side of the dancers who perform it, as do the other three works in Program B. This, in his eyes, is the ultimate goal, to highlight the strengths and distinctiveness of each dancer and each cast. “I try to bring forward what is special about the group while staying true to what I like,” he said.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on September 20-23. For more information, visit www.israel-opera.co.il