If it's April in Boston, it must be Alvin Ailey
Company brings exciting new work on its annual visit
Boston and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater go way back. The brilliant company has performed here almost every April since 1968. "People wouldn't know it was spring if Ailey didn't come to town," says Martha H. Jones, the president and executive director of the FleetBoston
This week the company brings exciting new works by Robert Battle, Alonzo King, and Dwight Rhoden, as well as the rousing gospel favorite "Revelations" and Donald McKayle's poignant "Rainbow Round My Shoulder."
Unlike most visiting theatrical groups, Ailey doesn't disappear after the final curtain. Many dance troupes offer classes to schoolchildren during their tours, but the Ailey company has it down to a science. It sends four principal dancers, trained to teach, into the schools for one week in cities where they are performing.
And every summer the Ailey Camp offers 80 Boston-area kids who are disadvantaged free classes in various dance styles, writing, nutrition, personal development, lighting, stage makeup, and dance history, as well as offering cultural and recreational field trips.
To take advantage of the Ailey Camp, which runs for six weeks and also exists in five other cities, campers do not have to be dancers or even artistically inclined.
Jones began establishing close ties between Boston and the Ailey organization 20 years ago. "I thought there was something very wrong with the foremost African-American company playing here to almost all-white audiences," she says, "so I tried to figure out how to let our African-American and Latino communities know about it."
Jones's first move was to extend the time -- only a day or two at the time -- Ailey dancers spent teaching in the schools. "They are terrific at establishing rapport," she says. "The kids tell their families how much they like them, and then they get interested in the company too." She also began offering discount tickets to students, bringing a flood of newcomers to performances. And five years ago, she helped launch the Ailey Camp.
"When you teach in the schools and children's hospitals, as I have for a few years, you get closer to the community, so that when you perform, you feel much more connected with the audience," says principal dancer Amos J. Machanic Jr.
As a result of Jones's efforts, ticket sales in Boston shot from 9,000 in 1986 to 20,000 last year. But she's most touched by seeing people who first attended Ailey performances 20 years ago and are now bringing their children. "The community has taken ownership of the company," she says. "It's become a real family thing."
Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Ailey company, did everything to help Jones make this happen. "Boston is one of our most vocal audiences,"Jamison says. "Partly it's our eclectic repertory and partly it's because we're accessible. Most of our dancers don't even stay in hotels in Boston anymore. They stay with friends. It's our second home."
Choreographers commissioned by the Ailey company benefit from the wide exposure provided by the Boston engagement. "You want your work to reach people of all ages and backgrounds," says Alonzo King, who directs his own company, San Francisco-based Lines Ballet, and has won major awards for his choreography.
He has two works in the Ailey repertoire this season, "Heart Song" -- making its Boston premiere -- and "Following the Subtle Current Upstream," set to a score that includes East Indian melodies, bells, drumming, songs sung by Miriam Makeba, and the sounds of rain and thunder.
When Jamison told King that both dances occasionally might be on the same program, he knew that "Heart Song" would have to be distinctly different from the other work. One way to do that was with music. Long interested in Moroccan laments, he visited elderly Moroccans near his home in California and asked them to recall lullabies from their childhoods. These songs, recorded by singers Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Yassir Chadly, and Hafida Ghanim, accompanied by primitive guitars and drums, create a haunting atmosphere.
"The dancers took to the piece right away," King says. "They work on a rigorous schedule and know how to consume material quickly and still respond emotionally. They find the familiar in what may look unfamiliar, and go from there."
King's style in "Heart Song" demands speed, endurance, and technical virtuosity of the 17 dancers, who wear costumes in stiff, angular shapes. Against silky swaths of iridescent material that drift across the back of the stage, the dancers form contentious couples and trios until a man and woman step apart from the group and perform a tender, intimate duet before they all fall into a joyful procession.
"I wish people would trust what they feel when they see a dance without letting their heads get in there first," King says. "They become petrified about being wrong about their evaluation. It's better to just feel the vibration of the work and let it speak to you."
Robert Battle's electrifying "Juba"-- the title is short for jubilation -- could not be more different from the elegant "Heart Song." The young choreographer, who has received high praise for his works for his own troupe, Battleworks, and for Dallas Black Dance, and the Parsons Dance Company, made an explosive, almost violent piece, with hand clapping, foot stomping and thigh slapping.
Four dancers, wearing peasant tops and shortened pants, execute the often folklike steps with stirring bravado. Battle describes the work, based on a dance of West African origin, as having the theme of rebellion, survival, and celebration, characteristics he found in company founder Alvin Ailey.
As with most of his dances, he collaborated with composer John Mackey, a fellow Juilliard School graduate, who created a score with the same propulsive drive as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." It is a 15-minute exercise in unrestrained energy.
Dwight Rhoden's "Bounty Verses" is equally propulsive. Using a mosaic of music, including pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Steve Reich, and Kurt Cobain, the choreographer says he wanted the work to reflect the hectic nature of urban lives. The dancers, wearing fanciful costumes in fuchsia and chartreuse, never stop, flying on and off the stage in risky leaps, spinning in dazzling pirouettes, sliding across the floor, only to join one another briefly to intertwine in intricate duets, sometimes to disco music. It makes a good showcase for Rhoden's hip blend of street dance, ballet, and modern and jazz styles. The set includes steel rods embedded with lights that descend from the ceiling and hang at an angle for part of the dance.
"This work has no message," says Rhoden, who codirects the company Complexions and is the resident choreographer of Dayton Contemporary Dance. "Basically I was inspired by the music, which includes sections from several masterpieces, like Beethoven's `Moonlight Sonata.' There's a sense of 19th-century ballet formations but basically, it's dance for the sake of dance.