I usually check out one of the all-new programs every year at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s City Center season, guaranteeing that I see productions I’ve never seen before. But for the company’s sixtieth anniversary, I decided instead to choose “3 Visionaries,” an evening of works by AAADT’s trio of artistic directors, Ailey (1958-89), Judith Jamison (1989-2010), and Robert Battle (2011-). The night began with Battle’s 2004 Mass, which the troupe debuted last year, restaged by Elisa Clark. Inspired by seeing Verdi’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall, Battle created a fourteen-minute dance in which a sixteen-piece choir in long robes move under a heavenly glow to John Mackey’s percussive score. (The lighting is by Burke Wilmore, with costumes by Fritz Masten.) The group comes together in a tight circle, forms a straight line, and glides across the floor on their tiptoes in spiritual reverence. Next was Battle’s Ella, reconceived from a solo to a duet in 2016, in which Michael Francis McBride and Chalvar Monteiro spend five exhilarating minutes prancing and preening, having a ball in Jon Taylor’s black sequined outfits as they try to outdo each other to a live recording of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat classic “Airmail Special.”
Following intermission, there were two very short excerpts from Jamison’s ouevre, a four-minute solo from Divining, beautifully performed by Jacquelin Harris to music by Monti Ellison and Kimati Dinizulu, and a duet from 1989’s Forgotten Time, with Clifton Brown and Chalvar Monteiro stretching the bounds of what the male body can do, with music by Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares and costumes by Jamison and Ellen Mahlke. Then came a stunning version of Ailey’s 1971 classic, Cry, a seventeen-minute ballet he created as a birthday present for his mother. Wearing A. Christina Giannini’s nineteenth-century-style ruffled white dresses, Akua Noni Parker, Ghrai DeVore, and Constance Stamatiou each perform a solo (to Alice Coltrane’s “Something about John Coltrane,” Laura Nyro’s “Been on a Train,” and the Voices of East Harlem’s “Right On. Be Free,” respectively), with Parker starting out incorporating a long white sash that she uses to clean the floor and as a headdress, celebrating women’s historical and evolving roles in African culture and the diaspora.
The program concludes with the usual finale (except in the all-new program), Ailey’s signature work, 1960’s Revelations. Don’t look past this thirty-six-minute gem, which still contains plenty of thrills and chills. Ailey was inspired by such writers as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes as well as childhood church services he attended in Texas, leading to a multipart ballet that Ailey explained thusly at its debut: “This suite explores motivations and emotions of African American religious music which, like its heir to the Blues, takes many forms — ‘true spirituals’ with their sustained melodies, ring shouts, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues — songs of trouble, love, and deliverance.” The piece is divided into three sections, “Pilgrim of Sorrow” (“I Been ’Buked,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “Fix Me, Jesus”), “Take Me to the Water (“Processional/Honor, Honor,” “Wade in the Water,” “I Wanna Be Ready”), and “Move, Members, Move” (“Sinner Man,” “The Day Is Past and Gone,” “You May Run On,” “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”). Highlights included Parker and Jeroboam Bozeman’s duet to “Fix Me, Jesus,” McBride’s solo to “I Wanna Be Ready,” and the trio of DeVore, Brown, and Stamatiou’s “Wade in the Water.” Ailey also said, “I wanted to explore black culture, and I wanted that culture to be a revelation.” After nearly sixty years, it still is. Ailey’s winter season continues at City Center through December 30, with “3 Visionaries” being presented again on December 26 at 2:00. Among the other upcoming programs are “Timeless Ailey,” “All Battle,” and “All New.” Each performance begins with Bob Bonniol’s new seven-minute documentary short, Becoming Ailey, with audio quotes from Ailey.