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March Gladness

I’ve long been preoccupied with the blurry boundary between arts and sports. To my mind, the Rose Adagio balances in “Sleeping Beauty” and Odile’s 32 fouettés in “Swan Lake” are akin to the triple axels in figure skating competitions. It was fitting, then, that Ailey II’s New York Season, which opened last week at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, fell during March Madness. As anyone with a busted bracket knows—and that’s most people this year—stats and seeds can amount to nothing in that wild window that is a live performance.  Oddly enough, most young dancers get very little performance experience until they land professional contracts. And to score those contracts, many endure cattle-call auditions that tell prospective employers little about how they might behave under the lights, in costume, in front of an audience. Rather, they are essentially hired on the basis of their piano scales. It’s not an ideal way to assess artistry.

Performance

Ailey II in NYC

Place

Ailey Citigroup Theater, New York, NY, March 22, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Ailey II in Robert Battle’s “Alleluia.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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Slightly better: several prestigious schools have year-end recitals. I’ve likened the School of American Ballet’s workshop performances to the NFL Combine and the Draft before. Often, those performances change company directors’ minds and scramble hiring plans. Just last year, SAB student Olivia Bell was slated to join the Joffrey Ballet until a breakout role in a workshop premiere caused the New York City Ballet to snap her up instead. But not every dancer has, like Bell, a fully formed stage presence. Some evolve more slowly. In many troupes, apprentices build performing experience in small roles over a trial period. At City Ballet, for example, rookies are immediately thrown into the starting lineups of the Party Scene, Snow, Spanish, and Flowers for some sixty shows of “The Nutcracker” to wet their feet. This forces a lightning-fire, sink-or-swim adaptation to company life—it can feel like borderline hazing.

But there is another, gentler way to straddle that exciting, yet awkward, period between studentdom and professionalism. This is where Ailey II comes in—and the American Ballet Theater’s Studio Company, Boston Ballet II, Taylor 2, Houston Ballet II, Ballet Austin II, etc. There has been a proliferation of second companies in recent decades, for good reason: it’s an effective system. These junior troupes provide extensive performing opportunities and, due to their small size, more hands-on coaching. Ailey II, the second company of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, offers a dozen or so young dancers two years to perform a wide variety of repertory and learn teaching methodologies (in preparation for numerous kinds of dance careers). With its Fordham University alliance, Ailey commits further to its dancers than most second companies. Eight of the thirteen dancers on the Ailey II roster are currently enrolled in or are recent graduates of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program.

Ailey II's Meagan King and Patrick Gamble in Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish's “mediAcation.” Photograph by Danica Paulos

On opening night, the Ailey II dancers demonstrated great skill, enthusiasm, and range in a program that spanned the AAADT’s history—from a fifty-year old duet by Alvin Ailey to the New York premiere of “mediAcation” by former Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish. I’m not usually a fan of gratuitously mixed upper and lower-case letters in titles, but Roxas-Dobrish’s clever splicing of “media” and “medication” reflected the themes of social media and alienation in her piece. She also integrated wild musical swings—from Nicholas Britell to Alberto Iglesias to Be Svendsen Nu—and got away with using on-the-nose props. She reminded me of Kyle Abraham in her boldness and eclecticism; and, like Abraham, she has the talent to pull it off. Three couples held the ends of crisscrossing yellow ropes to show their romantic connections, like old-fashioned phone lines, before breaking into a series of pas de deux and intrusions. In the opening group number, the ropes became so entangled that the dance resembled a super-sized game of cat’s cradle. For some of the duets, the ropes were placed around the borders of the stage, framing the more fraught encounters in a veritable boxing ring.

Ailey II's Rachel Yoo and Travon M. Williams in Alvin Ailey's “The Lark Ascending.” Photograph by Danica Paulos

The pairs were also color-coded by their smart costumes, by Elias Gurrola, which consisted of separates in varying levels of coverage with corsetry details—a nod to the intimacy of their relations, whether over text or in the bedroom. The most tender pas, for the excellent duo of Tamia Strickland and Travon M. Williams, contained inventive partnering moves like an assemblé catch lift that morphed into a back dive to the floor. In the final movement, a sort of club scene, Roxas-Dobrish showed the havoc that group dynamics can wreak on intimate relations. But at the very end, the dancers all grabbed one rope and moved in unison. Rachel Yoo was on fire in “mediAcation,” and it was worlds away from the piece she had just danced: Ailey’s innocent, balletic “The Lark Ascending.” Yoo really came to life in the more modern work, but she certainly proved she could do both styles—as did her “Lark” partner, Williams.

Ailey II's Tamia Strickland and Amar Smalls in William Forsythe's “Enemy in the Figure.” Photograph by Daniel Azoulay

The entire troupe showed their versatility in the contrast between the closer, an excerpt from William Forsythe’s dark and edgy “Enemy in the Figure” (1989), and the opener, Robert Battle’s euphoric, revivalist “Alleluia” (2002). “Enemy” was meticulously danced, perhaps due to the expertise of Ailey II artistic director Francesca Harper, who was a former principal with Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. Forsythe’s style is hard to get right: it is relentless and extreme—almost comically so at times. But the Ailey II dancers nailed the tone; they had both the intensity and the wit. Harper is in her second year in command of the troupe, hopefully she will bring more Forsythe to the rep. In “Enemy,” the dancers wore all black in front of a black backdrop, with the minimal lighting filtering through their fringed pants or jackets as they moved (Forsythe’s lighting design was recreated by Ethan Saiewitz, Harper served as consultant). Strickland shone again here, as did Meagan King in a torero-type solo. Amar Smalls also demonstrated his awesome control and easy pirouettes.

Ailey II’s Nicholas Begun and Jeffrey Robert Robinson III in Robert Battle’s “Alleluia.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

But the best work of the night was the first: “Alleluia.” These frenetic, joyous dances were set to Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel works as interpreted by opera star Kathleen Battle and jazz-great Wynton Marsalis, among others. Long white gowns, by Mia McSwain, contributed to the vibe that made “Alleluia” seem like a swinging riff on Ailey’s “Revelations.” There was head-shaking, stamping, and bunny hopping. There were jazz hands and cat paws. At times it felt like a Bollywood number. Choreographer Robert Battle specializes in these hyperactive, funky moves. I’ve often thought he could make a fortune by branding them as an exercise regime—like a high-art Zumba class. He could be the next Jane Fonda. Don’t get me wrong, a layperson could not dance much of “Alleluia,” but the dancers made it look awfully inviting. You had to smile along with the talented Patrick Gamble, who looked like he was having the time of his life. He was part of a wonderful quartet along with Kali Marie Oliver, Maggy van den Heuvel, and Spencer Everett. But nobody embodied the playful exuberance of the piece better than King—a tiny, sunny dynamo in a scarlet gown. She brilliantly grand pliéd, mouthed operatic trills, and tossed off club moves throughout her long, aerobic solo. She’s clearly a star, but this is a strong draft class. Robert Battle is also the AAADT’s current artistic director. He has some tough choices ahead of him.

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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