Jamar Roberts in “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

A Revelatory Farewell

Jamar Roberts' final performance with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Performance
Jamar Roberts' farewell performance with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Place
City Center, New York, New York, December 9, 2021
Words
Faye Arthurs

Most farewell pièces d’occasion are filler. They come about when a retiring dancer calls in a favor from a big-name choreographer to demonstrate their clout, and to have something to perform that is tailored to their end-of-career skill set. Every once in a blue moon, however, a goodbye bauble becomes the meat of the show. The last instance of this was probably Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” for Jock Soto in 2005. (Though that was slightly different, as it was a repeating work—with a group cast—created for Soto’s last season; it wasn’t just a one-off.) It is rarer still for the choreographer and the performer to be one and the same, as it was at City Center on December 9th, for Jamar Roberts’ retirement from dancing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He will stay on with the company as the resident choreographer, but he is leaving the onstage side of the business.

The show commenced, and peaked, with this one-time only event. “You are the Golden Hour That Would Soon Evanesce” was made for him by him for this very night, and it was one of the best dances I’ve seen all year. Roberts met the moment perfectly, demonstrating his talents for dancing and dancemaking in one too-brief solo. It wasn’t entirely solitary—he was joined onstage by Jason Moran at the piano, who played his own ruminative composition entitled, “Only the Shadow Knows (Honey).” Or rather, I should say Moran was joined by him, as Roberts walked in from behind the piano a few moments into the piece, to entrance applause.

Jamar Roberts with pianist Jason Moran in “You are the Golden Hour That Would Soon Evanesce” by Jamar Roberts. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Roberts tapped various parts of his body to the softly hammered notes of the piano, a poetic game of head-shoulders-knees-and-toes. As he touched a limb, it would react in that powerful, controlled way of his. He towers at 6 ft 4, but he moves with the quicksilver quality of someone far more petite. I am always amazed by his catlike nimbleness. As he triggered various isolations through this exploratory touch, he conveyed both wonder at the way his body could move as well as puppet-master control of how he would move it—equally invoking his roles as dancer and choreographer with each gesture. As the dance progressed, he contrasted these pinpointed movements with passages in which he flapped wildly or moved fluidly through many positions. At one point he knelt and stood back up bonelessly.

Even as he appeared to be uber-present in his body, it was clear that he was engaging in an overview of his performing past. At one point he considered the audience, at another he examined the floor. For a minute he simply stood and breathed, taking it all in one last time. At the end, instead of walking offstage as he started, he walked solemnly upstage, enhaloed by Brandon Stirling Baker’s pretty lighting as the curtain fell. It signified that rather than leaving something, he was transforming into something else, moving into another plane of dance existence. It was spiritual, emotional, awesome.

Chalvar Monteiro and Jacquelin Harris in Jamar Roberts’ “Holding Space.” Photograph by Christopher Duggan

Unfortunately, this was the only piece he starred in on the program. It was the perfect finish, so I can’t fault him that. But it was odd to have it as the opener, when it felt like the final exclamation point.  But save for the Robert Battle’s overly cutesy jazz romp, “For Four,” which never settled on a tone (swinging too wide between mugging, finger wagging, and one oddly inserted political moment), Roberts was involved in every other piece on the program somehow. He choreographed “Holding Space,” which ran second on the bill and had its onstage premiere this season. It was originally made during last year’s quarantine as a film, and it adhered to social distancing rules—with dancers never coming within 6 feet of each other.

Its opening tableau was eerily cool. To loud, droning music by Tim Hecker, three rows of four dancers stood evenly spaced in front of harsh, icy spotlights at the back of the stage. They wore what appeared to be white sweatsuits made of see-through gauze, which read differently as the lighting—again by Brandon Stirling Baker—changed dramatically. The costumes were fantastic. The dancers were half-sylphs, half Squid Game contestants. Roberts, who attended FIT for a spell, designed them himself. He also did the scenic design, further proving that he is a true modern Renaissance man.

At first, the cast appeared to move as a messy mob, but everyone was rooted to their little square of floor space. It quickly became clear that several dancers were performing the same moves in unison, it just seemed chaotic because they were scattered about the grid. These likeminded factions were connected through choreography rather than contiguity, symbolizing perhaps internet groups, political demographics, or Facebook friends. Eventually, the cast dispersed and a series of meandering solos and small group dances commenced, the dancers still distanced from each other but liberated from their squares. Eventually a giant box-frame prop emerged and five dancers took turns soloing within it, helping to push it around the stage when they weren’t inside. Ghrai DeVore-Stokes—moody and slinky—was my favorite. But the cage dances ranged from thrashy to yearning to despairing. In an interview, Roberts described this segment as approximating one apartment building full of people reacting to their isolation and confinement.

In the final stretch of the piece, James Gilmer (excellent in the Roberts mold: tall, strong, and lithe) appeared without his gauze overshirt and danced a brooding solo, some of it in silence. The rest of the cast rejoined without their gauze tees as well, and they finished the work bathed in a warmer, yellowish light to what resembled spa music. “Holding Space” wasn’t a bad piece; it was cleverly conceptualized and well-crafted. But it was overlong, and it had the same problem as all the recent Covid-inspired works: they reflect the bleak monotony of the Covid experience rather too well.

Jamar Roberts’ farewell bows following “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Ailey’s iconic “Revelations” closed the program, and I was hoping against hope that Roberts would surprise the crowd by dancing the “I Wanna Be Ready” solo. Alas, he did not. My other wish for the night was to see him do “Morani/Mungu (Black God/Black Warrior),” the solo he choreographed and danced for the virtual 2020 Fall For Dance Festival. It was one of the best works to come out of the quarantine period, and I wanted so badly to see him do it live and not on a computer screen. As it was, his only other appearances were in the opening and closing group dances of “Revelations”—but that’s not nothing. “Revelations” is a constant, a bulwark of the AAADT rep. It’s halfway between “The Nutcracker” and “Symphony in C.” It is an annual happening, a calling card, a seat-filler, and an endlessly stimulating piece of art. It is also a work that the crowd knows as well as the dancers. I mean that quite literally: two men sitting to my right were doing the ladies’ fan choreography accurately along with the cast.  

The Ailey dancers move through its roles at different points in their careers. (Roberts has starred in the “Fix Me, Jesus,” “I Wanna Be Ready,” and “Sinner Man” segments in the past. You can still find gorgeous pictures and film clips of him in these by combing through the internet.)  Their ghosts haunt each section even when they’ve moved on to a new one, or a new life. As Roberts appeared in the back row as the tallest, center point in the opening wedge, I thought fondly of how the last time I had seen the piece, now-retired Hope Boykin stood at the triangle tip down front.

Currently, Belén Indhira Pereyra dazzles in the “Wade in the Water” section. She stole the show with her wild flowing mane and maximalism in “For Four,” and she did so again in “Revelations” with a slick bun and isolated stillness—her hips rocking boldly below her tranquil torso. Sarah Daley-Perdomo and Yannick Lebrun were strong in the “Fix Me, Jesus” pas de deux. I love how in this pas, the lyrics beg the lord for help, but Ailey’s choreography demonstrates the couple’s fearsome strength on their own, both together and individually. There’s the woman’s supported layout in développé front, and the man’s one-armed, backhand hinging of his partner to the floor and back up, his fist clenched behind her neck. And the woman’s difficult á la seconde promenade, which, when done right, always gets the most applause. In this segment, Ailey subtly plays Glinda the Good Witch—showing his people how they had the power to fix themselves all along.

Roberts looked gloriously happy in the “Revelations” finale. He beamed and laughed with his peers while mindlessly executing the attitude hops and step-clap, step-clap-claps in the background. In his next chapter he’ll be at the front of the room, coming up with the steps. This was his last chance to be regurgitating the deeply ingrained combinations of “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” amongst his friends. And, after his year of dark, introspective solos (“Morani/Mungu,” as well as his fantastic, claustrophobic film “Cooped” for Works & Process at the Guggenheim), plus the chilly distancing of “Holding Space,” it felt right that he was blissfully sharing space with his peers in his very last turn round the dance floor.