Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opened its 2011 season, Robert Battle’s first as Artistic Director, at New York City Center. But while the company has a loyal following, with this strong support comes astronomically high expectations. Thursday night the Ailey company more than earned that respect.

AAADT's Renee Robinson in Alvin Ailey's Revelations, © Paul Kolnik
AAADT's Renee Robinson in Alvin Ailey's Revelations,
© Paul Kolnik

Battle is the third person in the company’s history to be named Artistic Director. He is succeeding Judith Jamison who was personally selected by Alvin Ailey himself in 1989. Jamison left some large shoes to fill to say the least. Thursday night’s program addressed these changes and offered insight into the company’s future.

First on the program, Anointed is a relentless piece. Overlapping melodies translate on stage as constant forward motion. The eye is always looking for the next movement that corresponds with the music (Moby and Sean Clements). Even without Christopher L. Huggins’ explanation of his choreography, it is clear that this piece represents change over time, an ongoing evolution. Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims are the central pair throughout Anointed and the audience watches their relationship develop as Ms. Sims becomes the dominant figure. Joined by four other women in the percussive second section, “Sally Forth,” they dance in unison hitting the beats with their arms. Sims’ figure is made stronger by those around her. The third section includes the most partnering with five couples on stage changing levels and tempos. The piece finishes with an unexpected twist, a change in partnerships, leaves the audience thinking about the future: what happens next? There is more to this story, just as there is much more in store for this company.

Battle introduced the world première of Rennie Harris’ Home, a work dedicated to Alvin Ailey. Home was inspired by stories submitted to a contest by Bristol-Myers Squibb challenging people to respond to the prompt Fight HIV Your Way. The result is beautiful and incredibly poignant. A group of dancers start clustered together and gradually start to move, gently swaying as if underwater. Individuals break out from the group as the melody and beat develop in the music (by Dennis Ferrer and Rachel Xavier), described as “gospel house.” Extraordinary dancing follows as those on stage transition from classic ballet technique to contemporary house dance. Every step in Home is grounded, and while one trio may be in the middle of a slow adagio and another gliding across the floor on hands and feet, they all come back to the driving beat. The distinct “house” rhythm is home, just as the dancers repeatedly hold one hand over their chests and raise the opposite palm overhead. Joyful dancing slows as the dancers regroup and the music fades. The drastic change in tone is almost painful and the audience longs for the company to spring back into action. A collective gasp escapes from the stage and the lights cut out. Home packs an emotional punch, and, as Battle said, “We remember, we never forget.”

True to tradition, Revelations ended the program on the highest note possible. Alvin Ailey’s famous choreography is well known, and many of those watching knew the songs as well as the dance. Beginning with earth-toned costumes (Ves Harper) and somber traditional music and escalating to a vibrant celebration, Revelations is a deeply passionate exploration of American faith. Ailey’s demanding choreography requires the dancers’ utmost devotion. During “Wade in the Water,” Ghrai DeVore, Clifton Brown and Briana Reed roll through their spine over and over, their backs rippling with the music. Matthew Rushing is like a coiled spring for the duration of “I Wanna Be Ready,” his body pulling away from the ground, begging for mercy. Relief comes, for the audience, as Michael Jackson, Jr., Sean A Carmon, and Michael Francis McBride explode in “Sinner Man” as though they absorbed the tension created by Rushing. They pop off the floor jumping high in the air from a crouching position. By the time the company performs “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” the theater is filled with energy. Audience members clap along, some even dance and sing.

Seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a singular experience. It is an absolute joy to watch this company of fantastic dancers.