The remodeled Amphitheater with its better sight lines and larger stage isn’t the only thing new about this summer’s dance offerings at Chautauqua. For the first time in a long time, dancers other than members of Charlotte Ballet opened the season. This past Monday, Ailey II, the junior company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performed the first of its two programs at the Amphitheater to thunderous applause. Guest critic Anthony Bannon, in the Daily’s review of that program, wrote of the troupe in comparison to Ailey’s main company, “Ailey II gives nothing away, carries no second fiddle.”
Perhaps the most celebrated second company in the country, Ailey II tours throughout the United States, Europe and the Caribbean. It was founded by the late Alvin Ailey in 1974 to serve as a bridge between The Ailey School and the professional dance world. Its dozen dancers, with terms of one to two years in the troupe, are chosen from among the School’s top full-time students and represent the next generation of dance stars. That next generation gave it their all Wednesday night at the Amphitheater in the troupe’s final performance to close out their brief Chautauqua residency that also included several master classes and lectures.
The program, titled “New Works,” featured three diverse contemporary dance works created on the company in 2016 beginning with Jae Man Joo’s 28-minute “Circular.” Joo is a former principal dancer with New York City’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and evidence of Complexions co-founder and resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden’s influence on Joo’s movement choices and choreographic structure were apparent. The dancers engaged in sharp-angled movement that focused on body line and extension, rocketed legs skyward in off-center bends to the side, and ran and slid across the stage.
Rhoden’s influences aside, Joo created a work that nicely showed off the young dancers’ individual technical talents. Set to a soundtrack that included music by 20th-century Russian composer Edison Denisov, George Frideric Handel and others, the work, said to be about “the full circle of human emotions,” didn’t make that connection clear. Instead, the work had the feel of a collection of movement phrases from other dance works cobbled together to create a zen-like mood and atmosphere. Those movement phrases, sometimes delicious, sometimes bland, came in spurts and waves. Throughout, a recurring image of at first one dancer seated with their back to the audience at the front of the stage, then multiple dancers following suit, suggested early on in the work an individual separated from the group. Later that imagery morphed into suggesting connections made to create unity among the performers.
The finest moment in “Circular” came in a beautifully crafted male duet set to Handel’s aria “Rinaldo HWV 7a lascia ch’io pianga.” In it, dancers Jacoby Pruitt and Christopher R. Wilson shone partnering each other in a series of lifts, holds and embraces that oozed masculinity and grace.
Next, former Ailey II and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis’ “Stream of Consciousness” reflected on Willis’ time at The Ailey School and the joys and anxieties of student life. Set to composer Max Richter’s reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” the 23-minute piece turned out to be the program’s gem.
Engaging, illustrative and sometimes humorous, the work wonderfully showed the range of emotions associated with student life. From the dancers’ school uniform-inspired costumes to depictions of bullying, crushes, the pressure to conform and picking yourself up after a fall, Willis’ gesture-rich choreography blended several dance styles into an emotionally powerful narrative which the work’s six dancers’ performed brilliantly. Highlights included a dream scene where dancer Terri Ayanna Wright in a white nightgown was lifted by a trio of male dancers to create the illusion she was sleepwalking on air, the sharp and detailed dancing of Jessica Amber Pinkett — whose spunky character went from flashing peace signs to taking a violent swing at one who annoyed her — and a fretful duet performed by Lloyd A. Boyd III and Pruitt, who sat apart on two red stools performing unison choreography that conjured up the image of them seated on metaphorical “hot seats.”
The program concluded with the flamenco-themed “Sketches of Flames,” choreographed by Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s new artistic director, Bridget L. Moore. Danced to a suite of flamenco music, the 25-minute piece explored what most traditional flamenco dance works tend to do — the joys and sorrows of love. The difference being, Moore applied flamenco’s energy and passion to choreography that was, for the most part, anything but traditional. Her choreography mixed Horton modern dance technique with hip-hop and contemporary dance movement to create a tour de force of dancing that grabbed hold of the audience and wouldn’t let go.
A bit over the top at times in her quest to capture flamenco’s intensity, Moore’s work nonetheless was a powerful and unique statement, mostly for its use of non-flamenco dance genres and for the dancers’ committed dancing. Costumed in flamenco-inspired garb, the dancers acquitted themselves nicely in Moore’s hard-driving choreography. Most memorable was an awe-inspiring duet performed by Boyd and Tara Bellardini featuring a torrent of whirling dervish-paced spins and turns.
In the end, Ailey II’s performance Wednesday night left no doubt as to Ailey II’s dancers’ talents. In the future, a select few may find a home in Ailey’s main company; for those who don’t, their talents will surely land them in other dance companies across the globe. For their efforts Wednesday night, they were rewarded with another rousing standing ovation at the program’s end, full of foot-stomping and cheering that was quelled only by the grateful and gracious young dancers waving farewell to the audience who responded in kind.
Based in Painesville, Ohio, Steve Sucato is a contributing writer, critic and reporter. His work has appeared in such publications as The Plain Dealer, The Buffalo News, Pittsburgh City Paper and Dance Magazine — among others.