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Holiday Gifting

Century,” Amy Hall Garner’s joyful new work for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was crafted as a present for her grandfather on the eve of his 100th birthday. Such a personal gesture is unusual for a guest choreographer, but birthday ballets are certainly not out of place at the AAADT. “Cry,” the heartbreaking solo Ailey made as a birthday tribute to his mother, was also in the company’s 2023 City Center Season rep. Ronald K. Brown’s “Dancing Spirit,” a birthday token for Judith Jamison, was in rotation too. With this move, Garner—who has become quite in-demand—has again proven her skill at adapting to local customs. She fit in musically at Ailey as well. “Century’s” jazzy mix included tunes from Count Basie, Ray Charles, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Duke Ellington. Of the 20 dances the Ailey troupe presented this season, 15 used jazz-based scores, and seven featured Ellington. With its on-trend music and its maximal, Robert Battle-esque energy, “Century” looked right at home.

Performance

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Place

New York City Center, New York, NY, December 8, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

AAADT'sJacquelin Harris in Amy Hall Garner's “Century.” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

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Perhaps this was less a case of assimilation than of Garner landing the perfect gig. The last piece I saw of hers, “Somewhere in the Middle,” for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, also used a swinging shuffle of Basie and Ellington. Like “Century,” it too sent a large cast freewheeling through space, frenetically grooving to nearly every note in the score. And it too brought the lights down for a slow dance just when the crazed energy level started to numb rather than delight. In “Somewhere,” the somber section was a pas de deux. In “Century,” fittingly, it was a reflective solo for Christopher Taylor, a stand-in for Garner’s granddad, Henry Spooner. During this passage, Garner included a voiceover clip of Spooner in which he humbly pondered his longevity.

But Garner didn’t linger over the roads her grandpa didn’t take. Mostly, “Century” was a boisterous celebration of life. From the metallic curtain at the back of the stage (by Nicole Pearce) to the candy striper corsets and feathery, showgirl accents for both the men and women (by Susan Roemer), “Century” was like a swank club on New Year’s Eve. The dancers burst onto the scene in the opening dance, which began with running split-lift carries and culminated in a cake-topper shoulder sit. The Times Square Ball may as well have dropped after this first number. Throughout the piece, the dancers tore through the often-tricky steps with genuine smiles on their faces, especially once they kicked off their character heels and got to boogie barefoot. I loved a squatty limbo motif introduced by the excellent Ashley Kaylynn Green. The entire cast sparkled, with James Gilmer, Chalvar Monteiro, Jacquelin Harris, Khalia Campbell, and Isabel Wallace-Green extra-shimmery. Spooner must have been tickled by this exuberant gift.

AAADT's Isabel Wallace-Green, Christopher Wilson, and Caroline Dartey in Amy Hall Garner's “Century” Photograph by Paul Kolnik

The rest of the terrific bill included Kyle Abraham’s 2022 work, “Are You in Your Feelings?” and Alvin Ailey’s 1960 classic, “Revelations,” featuring a polished veteran cast. These two dances were in communion. Both pieces utilized large casts in a series of emotionally charged vignettes. Abraham even stressed the group wedge formation, a powerful callback to the opening of “Revelations.” Though Abraham chose tunes by various hip hop and R&B artists (like Drake, Lamar Kendrick, Maxwell, and Lauren Hill) while Ailey used traditional spirituals, both works were about relationships. Abraham focused on interpersonal relationships; Ailey covered the human relationship to God.

Boy does Abraham get personal. Leaning into—but never on—his soulful playlist, he created detailed miniature portraits of lovers and sometimes rivals: as in a hilarious duet to Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman.”  I can never get over how well Abraham fuses contemporary and classical styles of dance. Very few people pull off pairing gargouillades and vogueing. In “Feelings,” Abraham’s references were playful and all over the map. At one point, a dancer crossed the stage eating a bag of chips. Karen Young’s bright costumes proved similarly flexible. Who knew that diaphanous, pastel track suits could bridge the gap between contemporary streetwear and 50s sock hop vibes?  

Sometimes “Feelings” employed witty excess, but then an all-female group number to Erykah Badu’s “I’ll Call You Back” was a masterclass in restraint. The dancers stood still and moved only their forearms and torsos, a brilliant complement to Badu’s musings on daily drudgery vs empowerment. The women evoked robots and T-rexes, scullery maids and DJs. The ladies were in perfect unison, but somehow their individual personalities came through clearly. As in “Century,” the dancers all burned brightly here. Jacquelin Harris and Patrick Coker were especially captivating, from their early flirtations and hiccups to their reconciliatory final pas de deux that ended with a fist-bump.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in “Are You in Your Feelings” by Kyle Abraham. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

There’s nothing inherently Christmassy about “Revelations” or the AAADT’s annual December stint at City Center, yet nothing puts me in a festive mood more than seeing this troupe perform in the run-up to the holidays every year—especially when I can get to the shows with the live band onstage. The programming changes (though you can count on “Revelations” like death or taxes) but the themes are consistent. There will be works that engage in emotional stock-taking and works that party hard—whether in celebration or in defiance of adversity. That there’s always so much jazz music makes sense: jazz is both wild-roaming and tethered to tradition. It is simultaneously escapist and nostalgic. 

In addition to the birthday tributes, several dances this season were commemorative of losses: “Memoria,” “Ode,” “Survivors.” Dancing is marking time. Birthdays, holidays, tragedies, any annual milestone will do as well as music for inspiration. Ailey, Garner, et al. are right: dancing is the best present. And that is because dancing lives entirely in the present while forging a bodily connection to the past. Seeing a yearly “Nutcracker” satisfies my inner-child; seeing the Ailey troupe perform every December is a gift to my adult self.  

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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