With so much to celebrate in connection with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s 50th anniversary, it’s great news that New Yorkers get a second, very different opportunity to view the company this season. Its annual December City Center season is a longstanding tradition, but this is only the second time around for their on-the-eve-of-summer week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It serves as a festive coda to the company’s extensive 26-city tour, which launched in January in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center, with the entire first family in attendance.
The Ailey dancers will be performing classics such as Revelations and Blues Suite (which, as at City Center, will feature live music onstage), and they will also unveil the latest revival of Hymn, the full-company 1993 work created in memory of Ailey by artistic director Judith Jamison.
Hymn celebrates the individual personalities within the company as well as the dynamic thrill of its collective power. In an exciting and innovative move, Jamison collaborated closely with actress/writer Anna Deavere Smith, who had just attracted acclaim for her solo show Fires in the Mirror. She applied her innovative technique—interviewing people and taking on their personas in performance—to the company’s dancers. They spoke about their range of experiences, their lives, motivations for dancing and connection to Ailey himself, and then Smith worked with Jamison to select and shape them into a text that serves as the “score” for Hymn. Composer Robert Ruggieri created a sound score within which the text is heard.
Hymn was created for the company’s 35th anniversary, which arrived four years after Ailey died in 1989. Fifteen years is a generation in the world of dance, so almost none of the dancers whose narratives form this score are still dancing. “I always expect the dancers to embrace what the music is. The music happens to be words this time,” Jamison says. Describing the dancers’ narrations that are heard through Deavere Smith’s uncannily accurate interpretations, Jamison says, “they’re definitely personal, but they’re all dealing with the human condition. That’s part of the connective tissue of the piece. As unique as your story may be, you’re a human being—and that’s what is connecting us all to Alvin.”
Recalling the work’s beginnings, she says, “I’d been prompted by Alvin’s absence. It was practically the first time I was able to feel that absence, to express it. I was so busy running the company that there was no time to grieve. This was part of that release. I was able to do that through the wonderful dancers that I had, and have now.”
Hymn was revived in 2003 and Masazumi Chaya, the company’s associate artistic director, felt that now the time was right to bring it back. “Chaya lovingly reconstructed it, as a gift.” Asked how the company managed to rehearse such an imposing work in the midst of a nearly nonstop touring schedule, Jamison says, “Chaya’s a miracle man. He makes time.”
She caught up with the company on tour and saw how rehearsals were progressing, “The dancers have really been voracious about this movement. They fulfilled the passion and the technique that I need to have happen with it. They wanted to do it with such aggression and possession, really claiming it for themselves.”
The return of Hymn forms an appropriate segue into the company’s upcoming season, which marks Jamison’s 20th anniversary as artistic director. “It’s bittersweet, because that means Alvin has been gone away from us for that long,” she says, audibly moved as she recalls the loss of the man who was her mentor and guide in so many ways. “What makes it all livable and poignant is the fact that he left us so much to participate in lovingly.”
Audiences in Brooklyn this week, like those everywhere the company performs, will experience how dynamically the current generation embodies the ideals and goals with which Ailey began his venture in 1958. The two alternating programs (both of which conclude with Revelations) include “anniversary highlights,” a selection of Ailey excerpts, some of them rarely seen. George Faison’s Suite Otis, a 1971 work set to Otis Redding songs, is on the program with Hymn.
Before returning to BAM last year, the Ailey troupe had not performed there since the 1970s, back when Jamison herself was one of its leading lights. “I love that opera house,” she exclaims. “There’s a warmth and a vastness to it that still lets you know that your audience is out there. It’s an intimate experience, even though it’s an opera house. It doesn’t come with the connotation of highfalutin. It really feels like people’s house, and when Brooklyn comes to see us, they’re pretty enthusiastic.”
>Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
June 9 through 14, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Ave. (at Ashland Pl.), Brooklyn, 716-636-4100; times vary, $20-$85.