Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater tries out some new moves at the Auditorium

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Chicago Tribune

Through Sunday, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns for its annual Chicago engagement, the company's 47th time at the Auditorium Theatre. 

Opening night began with the Chicago premiere of Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti's "Deep." The piece begins with three women standing in a triangle at center. They inflate their arms, rise to releve and gently fall toward downstage, then resetting to do it again. After a few times, the women break into a satisfying dance phrase, each eventually joined by a partner for simultaneous pas de deux peppered with just enough gestures to provide a bit of meaning. Hands to mouth, arms contorted behind the head, crisp shapes of the arms drawn about the head — it alludes, very subtly, to hip-hop dancing. The music is a collection of songs by Ibeyi, French-Cuban sisters who sing in English and Yoruba (a Nigerian dialect spoken by Afro-Cuban slaves) and, combined with the movement, there are hints at baptism, faith, community.

I had the thought at some points that "Deep" is almost like a modern "Revelations," the company's 1960 classic closer that ends every performance, including this one. In a fantastic display of girl power, the women jump legs first at the men, defying gravity as they float horizontally above the stage. The men then slink to the ground and get two feet to the chest as the women literally walk all over them. Perhaps it should have ended there; the two long, noodling duets that follow are beautiful but don't contribute much else to the work, and I'm not convinced the spectacular final image of the whole group dropping to its knees in prayer is worth the wait.

The majority of "Walking Mad," second on Wednesday's program, is performed to Maurice Ravel's "Bolero." Long thought of as classical music's equivalent to a sexual encounter — it repeats the same themes over and over with growing intensity toward an inevitable climax (and a key change from C to E) before quickly descending to its end — "Walking Mad" pays justice to this music by mostly ignoring it. Sure, Inger uses the landmarks of "Bolero's" two melodic phrases and its hypnotizing snare drum rhythm to guide him, but "Walking Mad" revels in the ridiculous for much of its duration. It appears that Inger was playing off the not-so-romantic undertones of the score, starting with a series of gimmicks as the cast pops around from, up and over, and in and out of a massive wooden wall (Inger's design that can also move up and downstage, and be flipped on its side to create a raised platform for dancing — a fantastic effect). The men appear like oversexed adolescents, donning red party hats and making many pelvic thrusts as they chase the women, who mostly reject their many advances.

The exception comes in the middle of the piece, when the Ravel sharply drops out and a single woman is left at center stage, cornered in by two sides of the set. Things turn quite serious, and a stunning solo unfolds as she dances a pas with her shadow. The shadow effect is even greater when she's joined by one of the men — then three — this time without those little red hats. I couldn't help thinking that this woman felt lost or discarded in some way, and it didn't help that the three-on-one phrase tossing her up and down the wall evokes a sense of entrapment that is uncomfortable, if not off-putting. It mattered, though, that we'd not long before that seen those men running around like bumbling idiots.

Ravel then abruptly kicks back on at full volume, and the group finishes the work with a pretty fantastic, quintessentially NDT unison dance phrase. The cast retreats, except for two dancers (though not the same two as before). They perform a solemn duet to a twinkling, stark piano score: Arvo Part's "Alina." It's lovely, I'm just not sure it goes with the rest.

Capping the night was "Revelations," of course, but before that came a little gem called "Ella." Ailey artistic director Robert Battle choreographed the piece as a solo in 2008 before joining the company, revived this season for Ella Fitzgerald's centennial. Battle couldn't decide who should do it, so "Ella" now features two dancers instead of one, essentially performing the solo side by side. "Ella" is fast, ferocious and playful to the max, echoing nearly every scat of Fitzgerald's "Airmail Special." Dancers Jacquelin Harris and Megan Jakel nailed it, to say the least.
Read the rest of the review here