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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: CAL Performances at UC Berkeley presents Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Programs A & B April 2 & 3, 2024, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

Touring the country like itinerant preachers, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) spreads the gospel of dance as the artistic evangelists of our times. They have a marvelous partner, and a home-away-from-home, at UC Berkeley.  Cal Performances first presented AAADT in 1968, when the company was just nine years old. What has followed has been a partnership for the ages. Coming annually, every non-pandemic year since, this is Ailey’s 56th engagement here. This year’s “Ailey Week” (April 2-7, 2024) includes five separate programs spread across seven performances. 


Seeing AAADT is a tradition for many in the Bay Area and the audience fervently roars its approval of each piece, be it freshly minted or lovingly restored from AAADT’s vast repertoire. One imagines the deep relational roots between the touring artists and managers of AAADT and Cal Performances staff and crew. 


The artistic excellence, virtuosity, and deeply grounded modern technique on display in Programs A & B is breathtaking, with work spanning from the monumental to the quotidian. Program A opens with Ronald K Brown’s Dancing Spirit (2009), an ensemble piece which aptly showcases the dancers’ versatility. A woman enters from a rear corner. Progressing along a diagonal, she pivots often to look back at where she has been. A second and third join, repeating identically her movement phrase. As a fourth dancer enters, the first reaches the near corner and slips from sight. In time nine will follow this path which speaks to the continuity of generations of dancers performing and expanding the Ailey repertoire year after year.


Brown entwines modern dance vocabulary with that of West African and Afro-Cuban dance. A multi-textured mosaic emerges as the synchronous gyrations of one group overlaps another’s.  The layering of the groupings creates a bustling space from which individuals confidently break out. The music, a compilation of Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead, and the American funk/rock/soul/Latin band War, perfectly supports the intermingling of influences in Brown’s spirited choreography.


Two succinct, but impactful, selections make up the second act. Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish’s Me, Myself and You (2023) is an impassioned male-female duet set to Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood”. Caroline T. Datey tips forward, extending a leg skyward behind her. Her silhouette is that of a sundial, as she gently rotates. Her elegant lines and steadfast balance express the depth of feeling she has for her past beau. In this memory ballet, James Gilmer is a commanding presence and an astute partner, catching Datey as she swirls by. In our last glimpse of them together, Gilmer arches up from the floor, supported by one arm, his other clasps Datey to his chest as she curves away. Their faces hover kissingly close.


Caroline T. Dartey and James Gilmer in Elizabeth Dobrish's Me Myself and You; Photo Paul Kolnik


Hans van Manen’s Solo (1997) is a star-turn for three men, set to Baroque melodies of Johann Sebastian Bach.  With fast footwork, daring spins, and innate musicality Chalvar Monteiro, Yannick Lebrun, and Patrick Coker compete for our respect and affection.  It is a frolicking and friendly match up which concludes too soon, as the trio dashes off a flawlessly synched sequence, securing a three-way-tie for our admiration.


Program A closes, as do most AAADT programs, with Alvin Ailey’s iconic Revelations (1960). The audience’s energy rises to meet the stage, anxious to be transported by the ritual of this beloved dance, the most performed piece of modern dance in the world. Danced to traditional Black spirituals and hymns this ode to the cultural heritage of African Americans is profoundly moving.  


We each have our favorite parts, mine being “Wade in the Water,” with its deep pliés, and undulating torsos amidst the theatrical river of blue silk panels which traverse the stage. “I Wanna Be Ready,” is achingly delivered by Yannick Lebrun. Balanced on his posterior, he hollows his belly scooping up toward deliverance. As he reaches sideways his body perpendicular to a lone supporting leg, we feel his yearning for worthiness.


The high energy finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” features church ladies, in long ivory dresses, broad brimmed hats, and swishing paddle-like palm-fans, joined by men in their Sunday best. During bows, we sing and sway as, over jubilant rounds of applause, as the company offers a reprise.  The emotional journey of Revelations is complete once more.


Program B, the next evening, includes three works of varied ethos, presenting us with an opportunity to appreciate the dancers’ adept delivery of a range of choreographic voices and dance styles. 


The curtain rises on a hazy otherworldly environment streaked with beams of purple, orange and turquoise light. Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000) is an abstract contemporary dance, which requires dancers to forego their safe center, forcing them into off-kilter balances as asymmetrically folded limbs unfurl into lightning-fast whipping gestures.  Steps are drawn out in elongated trajectories as men hover uncomfortably on the balls of their feet or a woman walks in wide straight-legged strides. Partnerships are tangled messy affairs in which shared imperatives are hard-fought.  King’s work sings loudest when the performers maintain a resistive tension in their movements.  Arms pull away as if drawing a strong elastic band which then breaks unleashing powerful accent energy. AAADT performs this dynamic 9-person piece assuredly, yet some still dance within themselves, executing the choreography with a studied perfection rather than pursuing the edge of abandon which would send King’s choreography into the stratosphere.


Jazz standards by Count Basie, Ray Charles, Irving Berlin, Ellington, and more, transport us to the uptown clubs of the 1930’s and 40’s for Amy Hall Garner’s CENTURY (2023). Inspired by her grandfather on the cusp his centennial birthday, CENTURY is flashy and crowd-pleasing, though I tired of its relentless pace sooner than the audience.  The piece opens with a bang, lights click on at 100% to reveal sassy showgirls in boldly striped corsets and feathery fuchsia minis strutting alongside men in ruffled pink shirts (costumes Susan Roemer). Blinding golden rays emanate off the pleated metallic backing-curtain, whose wattage often overpowers the dancing. 


Tributes can be treacherous, as a choreographer’s affection for their muse may tend toward the sentimental. Such is the case with the lyrical male solo introduced by Hall Garner’s grandfather’s vocal reminiscence.  Jeroboam Bozeman, his breath audible above the piano accompaniment, searches the corners, circling, lunging, hugging himself before coming to rest downstage. Facing us, he pats his heart, before reaching heavenward, as the lights fade.  While poignantly delivered, this reflective moment does not sit comfortably within the piece. An insistent drum beat follows, as the glamour and clamor of the lime light resumes, making it is impossible not to enjoy the ensemble’s lush layback turns and boisterous finale.


Jacquelin Harris in Amy Hall Garner's CENTURY Photo Paul Kolnik


Wednesday’s program concludes with Kyle Abraham’s Are You in Your Feelings? (2022), an exploration of the complications of mating and dating in the modern world.  Delightful characterizations are danced into life to a “mixtape” of contemporary Black music headliners including Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Jhené Aiko among others. Girls flirt and boys follow. Gals gossip and guys pose. A man cheats and his women negotiate. Men pursue and women vacillate.  Within the heterosexual drama, one man finds another, their hands briefly brushing.  Their bond builds slowly during chance meetings until, overcoming reluctance, James Gilmer and Michael Jackson, Jr. envelope one another.


Ashley Kaylynn Green delivers the fiercest and most memorable dancing of the evening. Pulsing with energy, she thrusts and rolls. Alone, she sorts out her angst through an impressive compilation of club dances. Later she vibes hypnotically with Chalvar Monteiro.  Their passion builds palpably in this duet where touch is anticipated, a breath away, yet rarely granted.


Kudos to the dancers and directors of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who continue to astound, to move audiences through tears to cheers.  We can’t wait to see you again next year!


Review by Jen Norris, published April 6, 2024

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Production Credits

PROGRAM A (Tue, Apr 2, 7:30pm; Sat, Apr 6, 8pm)

Dancing Spirit (2009, New Production 2023)

Choreography by Ronald K. Brown

Rehearsal Associates: Arcell Cabuag, Matthew Rushing

Music by Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead, War

Costumes by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya

Lighting by Clifton Taylor

Dancers: Hannah Alissa Richardson, Deidre Rogan, Khalia Campbell, Jacquelin Harris, Solomon Dumas, Jermaine Terry, Christopher R. Wilson, Michael Jackson, Jr., Patrick Coker

INTERMISSION

Me, Myself and You (2023, Bay Area Premiere)

Choreography by Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish

Assistant to the Choreographer, Ronni Favors

Music by Duke Ellington Arranged by Damien Sneed Performed by Brandie Sutton

Costumes by Dante Baylor

Lighting by Yi-Chung Chen

Scenic Design by Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish and Joseph Anthony Gaito

Dancers:  Caroline T. Dartey, James Gilmer

PAUSE

Solo (1997, Bay Area Premiere of New Production 2023)

Choreography by Hans van Manen

Staged by Clifton Brown and Rachel Beaujean

Music by Johann Sebastian Bach

Costumes by Keso Dekker

Lighting by Joop Caboort

Dancers: Chalvar Monteiro, Yannick Lebrun, Patrick Coker

NTERMISSION

Revelations (1960)

Choreography by Alvin Ailey

Music: Traditional

Décor and Costumes by Ves Harper

Costume dresses for “Move, Members, Move” redesigned by Barbara Forbes

Lighting by Nicola Cernovitch

PILGRIM OF SORROW

I Been ‘Buked (Arranged by Hall Johnson*)

The Company

Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (Arranged by James Miller+)

Solomon Dumas, Alisha Rena Peek, Ashley Mayeux

Fix Me, Jesus (Arranged by Hall Johnson*)

Khalia Campbell, James Gilmer

TAKE ME TO THE WATER

Processional/Honor, Honor (Adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts)

Shawn Cusseaux, Miranda Quinn, Christopher R. Wilson, De’Anthony Vaughan

Wade in the Water  (“Wade in the Water” sequence by Ella Jenkins; “A Man Went Down to the River” is an original composition by Ella Jenkins)

Samantha Figgins, Renaldo Maurice, Corrin Rachelle Mitchell

I Wanna Be Ready (Arranged by James Miller+)

Yannick Lebrun

MOVE, MEMBERS, MOVE

Sinner Man  (Adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts)

Christopher R. Wilson, Chalvar Monteiro, Xavier Mack

The Day is Past and Gone (Arranged by Howard A. Roberts and Brother John Sellers)

The Company

You May Run On  (Arranged by Howard A. Roberts and Brother John Sellers)

The Company

Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham  (Adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts)

The Company


Wednesday, April 3, 2024 at 7:30pm

Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000, Bay Area Premiere of New Production 2023)

Choreography by Alonzo King

Rehearsal Associate, Meredith Webster

Music by Zakir Hussain, Miguel Frasconi, and Miriam Makeba

Costumes by Robert Rosenwasser

Original Lighting Design by Axel Morgenthaler

Lighting AJ Crawford

Dancers: Patrick Coker, Caroline T. Dartey, Isaiah Day, Coral Dolphin, Samantha Figgins, Jacquelin Harris, Yannick Lebrun, Corrin Rachelle Mitchell, Christopher Taylor

INTERMISSION

CENTURY (2023, Bay Area Premiere)

Choreography by Amy Hall

Associate, Natrea Blake

Music by Various Artists including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Rebirth Brass Band, Cyrus Chestnut, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Costumes by Susan Roemer

Lighting and Scenic Design by Nicole Pearce

Dancers: Khalia Campbell, Jeroboam Bozeman, Jacquelin Harris, Michael Jackson, Jr., Coral Dolphin, James Gilmer, Ashley Kaylynn Green, Chalvar Monteiro, Isabel Wallace-Green, Christopher R. Wilson

 INTERMISSION

Are You in Your Feelings? (2022)

Choreography by Kyle Abraham

Rehearsal Associate, Stephanie Teraski

Music: Various Artists various artists, including The Flamingos, James Sullivan, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Drake, Shirley Brown, Maxwell, Summer Walker, Kendrick Lamar, and Jhené Aiko

Costumes by Karen Young

Lighting by Dan Scully

Dancers: Caroline T. Dartey, Solomon Dumas, Samantha Figgins, James Gilmer, Ashley Kaylynn Green, Michael Jackson, Jr., Renaldo Maurice, Ashley Mayeux, Corrin Rachelle Mitchell, Chalvar Monteiro, Miranda Quinn, Deidre Rogan

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