Exuberant Motion And Rollicking Jazz

ONE of the most brilliant conceits of Lincoln Center Festival ’96 was the pairing of Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Larger than life and immensely popular, Ms. Jamison and Mr. Marsalis perfectly capture the heart and grit of New York City. And their collaboration, a world premiere called ‘‘Sweet Release’‘ that was performed by the Ailey company and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on Wednesday night at the New York State Theater, is the perfect exuberant, gaudy festival package.

It is hard to imagine a more engaged response to Mr. Marsalis’s music, a rollicking, easygoing jazz score flecked with sharp-edged outcries and meditations for the trumpet. Ms. Jamison works with rather than against the grain of the score, performed live here and conducted by Mr. Marsalis. All but two of her dancers are in almost constant motion, skimming the ground and air as ebullient worshipers and partygoers.

Dressed in hot, vivid colors, they embody the glittering surface of the music. But there is a good deal more going on below the surface of the dance than is at first apparent. Ms. Jamison has worked some imaginative partnering into the choreography, and her staging is full of variety and invention. With each new piece, she seems to expand in new directions. ‘‘Sweet Release’‘ is Ms. Jamison’s most sophisticated and complex work.

The story is not entirely clear. Seated and moving around two blue benches on a stage halved by sweeping curtains, Karine Plantadit-Bageot and Uri Sands are two dreaming, thorny young lovers who may be remembering forebears or looking into the future. It is left to them to make us care about what is happening onstage and they do, in performing that brings to theatrical life the poem about love, written by Maya Angelou, that is quoted in the program.

Behind those curtains, which rise to reveal the action, a rather rakish minister presides over his frantic congregation. Danced with infectious spirit by Don Bellamy, the minister is not quite so much in charge when faced with a squirming devil-figure, played by Matthew Rushing with just the right tantalizing hint of evil. Nasha Thomas and Leonard Meek are a couple celebrating their 20th anniversary, their ice-cool costume colors adding considerable interest to the stage picture.

The brash costumes were designed by Greg Barnes. Timothy Hunter’s purposefully unatmospheric lighting and set helped to create the mood of fast-paced, sleek modernity.

‘‘Sweet Release’‘ will be performed again today, tomorrow and Sunday.

The evening opened with ‘‘The River,’‘ an Ailey homage to Duke Ellington restaged here by Masazumi Chaya. Commissioned by American Ballet Theater, the 1970 piece gave the choreographer a chance to continue his explorations of water imagery and the vocabulary of classical ballet. ‘‘The River’‘ is grand and airy enough for the State Theater stage, but it lacks the warmth that is at the heart of most Ailey works, perhaps because it was created for a ballet company.

But Mucuy Bolles and Mr. Rushing stood out for the level and contrast of their dancing in the ‘‘Giggling Rapids’‘ pas de deux, as did Mr. Bellamy and Elizabeth Roxas in ‘‘Twin Cities,’‘ she for her lyrical arms and he for a beautifully attenuated arabesque turn that caught the moody poetry of that duet. The lead cast was completed by Solange Sandy, Michael Joy, Bernard Gaddis, Linda-Denise Evans, Vikkia Lambert, Troy Powell, Richard Witter and Roger Bellamy.

The evening ended in disappointment. It is only with the financial backing of an important festival that choreographers like Ms. Jamison can collaborate with challenging major musical artists like Mr. Marsalis in dance today, and the festival also provided the rare chance to see Ailey’s ‘‘Revelations’‘ with a live performance of the spirituals that inspired and accompany the dance. But that pleasure was squandered in the overblown accompaniment, which included singing by Marion Moore, T. Ray Lawrence, Curtis Rayam, Ella Mitchell and Brother John Sellers. Mr. Sellers’s lithe and craggy voice, which has become so distinctive a part of the ‘‘Revelations’‘ legend, was mostly lost in all the noise.

In any case, ‘‘Revelations’‘ lost much of its character on that stage. Dances do not survive by clinging to an often unsubstantiated past. But the State Theater stage is large, and in all but spirit ‘‘Revelations’‘ is a small and simple dance. An attempt seemed to have been made to give it a bigger, slicker look for the occasion, magnifying two troubling changes that have crept into the performing in recent years.

The tremor of the last dancer off the stage in ‘‘Wade in the Water’‘ said something. The St. Vitus star-turn that has replaced that tremor says nothing. And have the performers or rehearsal directors involved with the ‘‘Move, Members, Move’‘ section today ever fanned themselves at a hot Sunday afternoon church service? Apparently not, for there is nothing about heat or camaraderie in this hyperactive flapping. Guffaws have replaced Ailey’s loving smile.

by Jennifer Dunning
Source: The New York Times

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