I should start this review by being honest and explaining that I was not initially excited to see Ailey at City Center. I was prepared to be impressed by the company’s physical aesthetic and not much else – I often think of the company as finely-tuned robots who are capable of demonstrating technical virtuosity but not of moving me in a big way, emotionally. I am pleased to admit that I was completely wrong. I found myself enjoying the Ailey performance more than I had any other performance so far this season, although I think that is largely because of the closing piece, Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris' Home © Paul Kolnik
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris' Home
© Paul Kolnik

The three pieces on the program that I attended were Paul Taylor’s Arden Court, Rennie Harris’ Home and the closing piece by Naharin, who is also the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. As it turned out, I enjoyed each piece more than the last. The Taylor piece was a delight choreographically. I am continually surprised by how Taylor manages to incorporate both beautiful lines and a healthy sense of irreverence in everything he does. It was marred only by the Ailey dancers’ inability to completely let themselves revel in that irreverence. Arden Court has a recurring motif of one dancer acting in a servile manner toward his or her partner – humorously inching along on one’s haunches, beneath a partner’s extended leg – but the Ailey performers seemed too careful and rigid to really appreciate this moment. I was also somewhat disconcerted to see the exact same pectoral muscle development on each of the male dancers’ bare chests – this is where my “finely-tuned robots” feeling comes from.

Home was easy to enjoy because the dancers so clearly enjoyed it. After a boring start, in which the dancers indulge in some slow-motion movement on a dimly lit stage, things got more lively and a little less predictable. Rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, a guest artist in this piece, commanded the stage. It was impossible to watch any other dancer whenever he entered. Hip-hop in a modern dance setting easily falls victim to cliché, and while this piece was no exception, there were enough interesting spatial choices and groupings to keep the audience happy. And it was easy to catch on to the dancers’ infectious enthusiasm for the material.

But the unequivocal best performance came last. Naharin’s piece Minus 16, which begins during the intermission with one suit-clad dancer quirkily improvising on stage as if alone in front of the mirror, was a refreshingly different facet of movement and performance for the Ailey dancers to explore. One by one, the other dancers of the company joined the soloist on stage, each grooving to the elevator music in his or her own way – and all wearing the same black suit. This was the first time all night the audience had been treated to a view of the Ailey dancers as real individuals, and it made a noticeable difference.

The remaining sections of the piece – a chair section which involved repeated backward full-body flings, chanting, the removal of clothing and an unadorned, pleading duet – were intense and poignant, respectively. It was the piece’s final section, which involved audience participation, that proved the most pleasing. As a techno version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played, the Ailey dancers descended into the audience and selected brightly-dressed spectators to join them on stage. The following minutes were some of the most hilarious that I have seen recently: some audience members chose to embarrassedly participate in the movement as minimally as possible, whereas others not only gave full-fledged performances but even attempted to duplicate the Ailey dancers’ choreography and improvise throughout. I have not laughed so hard at the human spirit’s lovely attempts to entertain in quite a long time. It was as if the entire Ailey company became human in the process, too. I found myself feeling grateful that the Ailey “machine” had allowed such a rare glimpse into uncertainty and individuality.

I suppose I should really thank artistic director Robert Battle for bringing such a wide repertory to the company in his short time there – my opinion of the company has certainly changed as a result.