How can you tell if you’re watching a good dance performance? By how visually stunning it is to the viewer? From the intense emotion each performance brings out of you? Maybe it’s from the breath you didn’t realize you were holding as you in lean in to ensure you don’t miss a single movement?
No matter from which angle you judge them, the skill of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is undeniable. Formed in New York almost 60 years ago, this predominantly African-American dance group has served as a the preeminent modern dance company. Their performance at the Arlington last Tuesday comprised of four pieces collectively exploring the African-American identity.
The show opens with the dancers lying on the dimly-lit ground with the exception of one man, who walks slowly through them, as a deep voice speaks. Suddenly a gunshot sounds, and a the voice says, “Your soul belongs to me.”
The piece was choreographed by Rennie Harris, founder of the first hip-hop dance company, Pure Movement. His work mixes house, rap and gospel music with a dance that feels primal but is executed with precision. The power of the dance is only intensified by the rhythmic beating created by the dancers’ steps in unison.
Each dancer wears normal street clothes: t-shirts and jeans with flannels around the waist. But slowly each dancer walks off and returns in pure white dresses and pants, reflecting the piece’s name, “Exodus,” which Harris intended to be a reflection on release “from one’s ignorance and conformity.”
Each dancer stretches their arm up to the sky, attempting to reach spirits. As the song progresses, they begin to work less as fifteen individuals but a single unit. The piece ends with a single dancer reaching up to the sky in a moment of hope, only to have it interrupted by a gunshot, prompting him to fall into the arms of the other dancers.
The second work takes on a completely different tone. Entitled “Open Door,” the dance explores the range of skills that the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has, beginning with ballet but slowly combining with more and more Afro-Latino beats and music, creating a freeing and lively atmosphere.
The last piece is the group’s most famous: “Revelations,” choreographed in 1960 by the company’s founder and namesake. Closing most of Alvin Ailey’s performances, the dance is broken up into a series of shorter dances that explore the story of African Americans. Performed mostly to gospel music, the dancers illustrate aspects of African-American faith, the history of slavery and work toward freedom. Each dance is intricate in its movements, filled with different nuances and tied together by universal themes.
The performance demonstrated the company’s technical skill and range in different styles of dance that brings the performers together in a seemingly single unified body. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater develops a sense of unity and intimacy, both between each other and with the audience.