In mid-Manhattan, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is a behemoth. Along Ninth Avenue, you’ll see the name plastered across the largest dance space in the world. In Des Moines, though, you’ll see how, inside Ailey’s space, everyone seeks to express a simple humanity. That even goes for the leaps that defy gravity.
“Mr. Ailey said dance comes from the people, and it should go back to the people,” explains Daniel Harder. Another who defies gravity, Harder is a principal dancer, yet he makes clear that the performance isn’t about spectacle. “The goal is for the audience to recognize the person inside the dance. For the dance to become a reflection of the audience.”
The current tour creates that “reflection” in 23 cities coast to coast. Shortly after that, the troupe begins work on its New York season — which always includes new choreography — and then it’ll take off again, this time for Europe. Such outreach has been part of the company mission since its founding. Back in 1958, Ailey took the dancers on what he called “station wagon tours.”
From the first, too, the troupe has been identified with black urban arts, and it’s often worked with jazz and blues. Yet Ailey, while himself African-American, had lived all over the country and studied under white mentors. Over time he developed a repertory for artists of every background. These ranged from solo pieces to group numbers like “Revelations,” a 1960 masterpiece rooted in gospel music yet reaching to other religious experience.
“ ‘Revelations’ is wonderful,” Harder said.
Harder said he’s “honored” to be in the piece and believes it will “always remain” a feature of any Ailey performance — though its composer died in 1989. Yet Harder goes on to praise a different number, the only one in which he doesn’t perform. That’s “Pas de Duke,” a silky duet from 1976, based on the music of Duke Ellington and written for Mikhail Baryshnikov. The great Russian dancer came to Ailey, in fact, to work with fresh thinkers.
That thinking demands a lot from the people onstage. Modern dance is distinguished by its use of “multiple vocabularies,” as Harder calls them, meaning different sorts of movements. “Pas de Duke,” for instance, begins with a streetwise strut, then segues into hip rolls that might snap the spine and kicks so high the dancers could scratch their heads with their toes. Before long, it throws in ballet touches: one jeté after another on to a tiptoe spin.
A similar mash-up can be seen in every piece, according to Harder. He mentions “hip-hop movements” in one, “Caribbean flourishes” in another. He claims that the company stays so fit, so toned, the real wear and tear on of the tour is emotional.
“You miss your family, your home connections,” he said.
But then, it’s just such basic emotion that the company brings to these performances. Ailey’s body-based art, as Harder put it, shows us “we’re all human beings, beautifully flawed.” CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.