Alvin Ailey's new artistic director has big shoes to fill 

Big Debut

Robert Battle is the new artistic director of Alvin Ailey, only the third in the company's lifetime after Judith Jamison and Alvin Ailey himself. At Friday night's pre-performance, he gave a brief overview of the pieces to come and said he hoped Charleston would show the company some Southern hospitality.

The program opened with "Arden Court," choreographed by modern dancer Paul Taylor in 1981 and set to music reminiscent of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, by William Boyce. The set is simple: a large painted rose. Battle said that Paul Taylor dedicated the flower to his mother, who was in the audience when the piece debuted. Battles said he wanted the rose because he remembered how he felt getting the new job as artistic director. The lighting is minimal, as is the costuming. The male dancers wear only tights; the females are in pale pink leotards and fringe-petal skirts.

"Arden Court" is a classical modern balletic piece, full of winding, springing leaps and turns. Pure lines and movements characterize Taylor's choreography which includes interesting formations and geometric spacing. The dancing is melodic and at times slightly gymnastic; movements ranged from skittering to fluid, with lovely close-to-body pas de deux.

But it's a long piece and a bit disappointing as an opening act. While the execution was okay, it wasn't what we've come to expect from an Alvin Ailey performance. For an audience ready to love them, it was perhaps too abstract and felt somewhat cold and removed. The choreography, while interesting, was not overly difficult; the dancers were good but not dynamic. It was lovely, but unremarkable, and seemed in this opening number typical of many other modern dance companies.

The next piece, Home, choreographed by Lorenzo Rennie Harris in 2011, is a tribute to all people affected by the AIDS virus (Alvin Ailey died of AIDS in 1989). The scene opens on a cluster of 14 dancers dressed in street clothes. The lighting is dark and hazy like a dance club. The music is at times tribal, pulsing like a heartbeat, unsettling and dissonant with disembodied voices. One male dancer breaks away from the bodies and claps, seemingly an outsider (with AIDS?) to the group. The piece is an eclectic blend of modern dance with traces of stomp and hip-hop. As it goes on, movement becomes more and more frenzied; the beat becomes stronger. As the dance continues, the narrative thread gets lost. Then the lone man appears to experience an awakening of sorts, and the piece ends, not exactly in celebration, but in a kind of acceptance and integration.

Robert Battle's own piece In/Side (2008) was, he said, "inspired by Nina Simone's voice." The dance is set to Simone's "Wild is the Wind," and solo dancer Yannick Lebrun is dramatic, intense, and graceful, his character conflicted by interior and exterior forces. Lebrun moves from a crouching spider-like position scurrying across the back of the stage into a dance full of longing and desperation. Garbed in only briefs, Lebrun's movement is especially pure, his flawless physique highlighting every ripple and nuance.

Revelations by Alvin Ailey makes us remember why we love Alvin Ailey: the dancing is at once so powerful, so simple, so clear, with a sense of unity in both movement and expression. Traditional spirituals convey messages of strength and hope. From the trademark arched arms and bent legs of "I Been 'Buked" to the fluid, quick energy of "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," to the gorgeous pas de deux of steady guidance and transformation, "Fix Me Jesus" by Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims, Revelations soars. The dramatic lighting in "Fix Me Jesus" emphasizes Linda Celeste Sims's amazing extension. Glenn Allen Sims is a steady yet unostentatious "spiritual" support. "Wade in the Water" is always a favorite, with the undulating sheets and movements of flowing white skirts. "You May Run On" was energetic and technically superb. The final number "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" showcases Ailey at its best. Church women in hats gossiping behind fans on a hot Sunday make us all want to dance along.

However, even in Revelations the dancing is not as crisp as usual and lacks the level of energy to which fans of Ailey are accustomed.

Note: there are two programs for the three performances, so Saturday's (tonight's) will be different, except of course for the signature ending, Revelations. Sunday's will be the same as Friday's.

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