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Alvin Ailey Dazzles & Delights

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Wang Center April 22-27

By Christiana Briggs

Continuing a greatly beloved yearly tradition, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which over the years has been heralded as a cultural ambassador of black cultural expression and American modern dance, graced the stage of the Wang Center April 22-27. Under the directorship of former dancer Judith Jamison, Alvin Ailey delighted Boston audiences in its 29th consecutive year of performances. Presented by the BankBoston Celebrity Series, the troupe presented three company premieres and two new productions of classics from the Company repertoire. In addition, the company visited area schools through Project Discovery, the education and community service program of the Celebrity Series. In this way, inner-city children had the opportunity to see and experience American modern dance at its most spectacular.

On April 23, Alvin Ailey performed three works: "For 'Bird'-With Love," "Fandango" and "Revelations." The first piece was an all-new production of Alvin Ailey's original "For Bird" of 1984, a tribute to the jazz legend Charlie Parker. With music by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Jerome Kern, it was a lively and moving reflection of the young jazz legend's life. Born in 1920, Parker, better known as "Bird," rose to great heights in the music world. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he helped to establish bebop, putting West 52nd Street, now known as Jazz Alley, on the map. After a life of drug and alcohol abuse, Bird died at the age of 35--but not before leaving behind a significant legacy in the age of jazz.

The role of Bird was performed by Don Bellamy, who appeared in the 1993 Broadway musical Red Shoes. From the moment he received his alto sax to his final moments lying on the stage, his performance brilliantly portrayed the ups and downs of a musicians life. Accompanying Bird were his fellow musicians: trumpet, tenor, piano, bass and drum. Particularly notable was Trumpet, danced by Matthew Rushing. His strength and sheer energy came through in the swift jumps, kicks and movements across the stage. Throughout the performance, the dancers showed an amazing ability to stay together even during a pause in the music when a lone voice was speaking. The females exhibited the same technical strength and exuberance in dancing as the men and acted as well as they danced.

The costumes and sets by Randy Barcelo added a great deal to this piece. From the simple gray and black suits of the men to the gray dresses of the women and the sequin-covered glitz of the two chorus girls, the costumes set the tone of the decade and the club music scene. The sets included black and white backdrops of New York City streets and the interior of many of the clubs including Birdland and The Royal Roost. There was constant changing of props from saxophones to trumpets, which the dancers actually carried throughout some of the sequences. There was a high degree of interaction between the dancers and the props: The dancers rolled over, sat on, and kicked off of numerous chairs, stools and benches that filled the clubs.

In the first few scenes, the lighting added the only hint of color, ranging from red to hot pink, illuminating faces and white shirts. In later scenes, the little circles of light emanating from a disco ball created an image of craziness and mirrored the bouncing notes of the music. On the floor were more circles of light that the dancers moved through and around, resembling the 'sea of holes' in the Beatles' Yellow Submarine video.

The second piece was "Fandango," choreographed by Lar Lubovitch in 1990. Set to Maurice Ravel's Bolero, this piece was a dance for two, performed by Elizabeth Roxas and Leonard Meek. Clad in black midriff shirts and black tights ending in bare feet, they began with their arms and bodies connected and for the duration of the piece they were never separated for more then a few seconds. The choreography moved from simple embraces to lifts and complicated intertwingings of the two bodies that at times was sensual and erotic. The energy between the two dancers, as they rolled, turned and twisted around one another, built as the music grew in intensity. At times, it seemed that the women was a mere toy, so light that the male dancer could easily manipulate her around his body and into the air. It was an amazing juxtaposition of complete control and melting intimacy. There was never a break in movement throughout the piece and as the Bolero rose to its peak the audience sat at the edge of their seats until it all crashed to an end.

The last piece was one of Alvin Ailey's acknowledged masterpieces, "Revelations," which Ailey created in 1960. The piece is a combination of his inspirational memories of Texas--the blues, gospel, and spirituals--and it reflects both the joy and sorrow of the human spirit. Divided into three separate sections, Pilgrim of Sorrow, Take me to the Water and Move, Members, Move, each section reflected a different aspect of the soul.

In the first part, several dancers moved slowly in mournful pleading, arms raised to heaven in contrition. The second section was one of the most stirring pieces of the evening. It began with a processional, the dancers walking slowly in white suits, dresses and pants, with white fans and huge parasols, against a backdrop of blue light. It was a scene right out of one of Winslow Homer's Caribbean watercolors. The song "Wade in the Water" was danced by three people, who crossed through the "water": two dark and light turquoise blue strips of material, rippling like waves across the stage. In this symbolic baptism, a couple was led by a third woman who brought them back and forth through the waves. The song "I Want to Be Ready" was danced by Dudley Williams, who joined Alvin Ailey in 1964. His piece was a plea to God to let him be prepared to die. With slow movements that spread across the stage, he had a very calming effect on the audience.

Altogether, the evening was an amazing mix of jazz and gospel, fast-paced dance and tenderly spiritual prayer. The Alvin Ailey company performed superbly and should be highly anticipated when it returns next spring.

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