On December 1, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned triumphantly to New York City Center – its home base in the city for 50 years – having foregone its 2020 season (and a great deal of touring) during the brutal pandemic shutdown of performance venues. The 30-member Ailey troupe, I would propose, is one of the hardest-working companies in the dance world, given their intense touring schedule and their usual 40 NYC performances each December. Scaled back to three weeks from the company’s usual five weeks in previous years, it was scheduled with the dancers’ well-being in mind: to ease performers back into action without overly stressing bodies, to return them to the rhythms of a performance season.
The schedule packed many highlights into an abbreviated season. A program focused on Ailey’s works set to Duke Ellington scores included the rarely seen large-scale 1970 work The River. An all-Robert Battle program saluted the impressive first decade of his tenure as the Ailey Company artistic director. Rennie Harris’ bold, much-admired Lazarus made its return. And Jamar Roberts was given a hail-and-farewell evening on December 9th, marking his retirement as a company member (since 2002) and re-confirming his promise as its first resident choreographer. He danced a gentle, meditative new solo for his farewell to the stage, and 12 dancers performed his newest work, Holding Space.
Sadly, the final five Ailey performances (Dec. 15 – 19) then fell by the wayside. Covid infections necessitated the cancellation. (This coincided with a large number of such NYC event cancellations that created havoc for performers and audiences just at the height of holiday theater-going.)
Among other lamentations, five large NYC audiences missed their chance to see Ailey on stage. But the company is offering a virtual treat that anyone anywhere can experience. The December 1st opening night gala, ReunitedWeDance, is streaming through December 28 on Ailey All Access, YouTube and Facebook. This marks the first time Ailey has made a gala program available for streaming.
The program features Battle’s tour-de-force duet Ella with live music by GRAMMY®-nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and his final section of Love Stories, set to Stevie Wonder music. Clifton Brown is joined by an ensemble of students from The Ailey School in Bird Lives!, an excerpt from For Bird With Love, Alvin Ailey’s 1984 tribute to jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker. The performance culminates, inevitably, Ailey’s signature masterpiece Revelations.
Looking ahead, there will be more Ailey on screen next month. PBS will broadcast Jamila Wignot’s 90-minute documentary Ailey on January 11 on many stations (check local listings) to open the 36th season of the prestigious American Masters series. The film is told through its own words, along with interviews with those close to Mr. Ailey, and features evocative archival footage and rarely seen historic performances. It attracted considerable attention and praise at last year’s Sundance and Tribeca film festivals.
If life doesn’t throw any more Covid curveballs, Ailey will be back on stage at the end of next month, launching its extensive national tour on January 25th, with performances dates all over the country through early May.
Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia and other publications.