Ailey Dancers Preview Olympics Commission

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 19, 2001 at 12:23 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 19 (UPI) -- The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is previewing its tribute to Olympic gold medallist Florence Griffith Joyner, commissioned by the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, as the centerpiece of the company's annual season at the New York City Center.

The work by Judith Jamison, the dancer who succeeded Ailey as head of the company when he died in 1989, is titled "Here ... Now" and will be performed in Salt Lake City as part of the Winter Olympics' extensive cultural program, called the 2002 Cultural Olympiad. It should not be missed by anyone who enjoys the art exhibits and stage performances that have become very much a part of the Olympics scene.

The premiere performance of the work memorializing Joyner, who died in 1998 at the age of 38, reveals it as non-biographical, although the lead dancer, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, reincarnates the Olympic running champion's innate beauty, charismatic personality, and physical strength. She dances to Wynton Marsalis' fascinating score with an intense but graceful physicality in a work that consists of five scenes.

There is no plot, but the audience has the sense that races are being run and won by the dancers clad in colorful Emilio Sosa-designed track suits and tank outfits.

Fisher-Harrell opens the first segment of the work, titled "speed," by walking across the stage in a transparent cloak, ready to begin competition, and she closes it in the segment called "heaven" by striding offstage in a leotard with a sense of pride in victory, en route to supernal glory as a meteor flashes across the backdrop.

The set designed by Al Crawford consists of a curving white running track, above which is suspended a crescent lunar mobile. Running on the track is transformed into dancing, sometimes to a jazzy beat, at other times to conventional dance rhythms. After the preparatory limbering up, the dancers freeze briefly in a starting position indicating the beginning of a track event.

The best part of Jamison's inventive choreography comes in the "strength" segment when trios of male and female dancers warm up individually and then perform together, the men catching the women as they leap from the ramp. They separate, then come together again in intricate body patterns that suggest contortion in its most fluid, lyric refinement.

In the "pain" segment, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Clifton Brown have a spirited duet that emphasizes the pull and tug of athletic movement and sudden shifts in body placement. Another duo, Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines and Glenn A. Sims play against one another with in the style of good-natured competitors in the "style" segment, and Sayyed-Gaines imitates a skater spiraling out of control and revolving on the floor in a final spin.

Jamison pulls out all the stops in her choreographic repertory to keep "Here ... Now" from sagging even once from the emotionally high level she establishes in the first segment. This is unarguably one of the finest dance works she has ever conceived, and that includes her much admired "Hymn," "Sweet Release," and "Double Exposure," which is being revived this season.

The dance bill featuring "Here ... Now" is being closed with "Revelation," Ailey's masterpiece that ranks as one of the finest American dances ever choreographed, right up there with the works of George Balanchine and Martha Graham. This wonderful work, performed to black spirituals and ending with the joyous "Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" that has the audience clapping along, remains evergreen, thanks to a cast of remarkable technical skill, wit, and enthusiasm.

The other notable new work of the season is Ronald K. Brown's "Serving Nia," a sequel to "Grace," which he created for the Ailey company two years ago. It portrays give-and-take between a teacher and her students, reflecting the call-and-response tradition of African music and dance that Brown observed in visits to Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Guinea.

Brown, who has his own dance company called Evidence, has worked some contemporary African dance idioms, specifically street dancing, into this most original work that fits comfortably into the mainstream of modern dance. "Serving Nia" goes a long way toward establishing Brown as one of the few major American choreographers on the contemporary dance scene.

This is a good year for the Ailey company. At the opening of the season, Jamison announced it has just received a $15 million gift from financier Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan, bringing to $47.5 million the amount raised toward the company's $60 million capital campaign.

The money raised so far will cover construction of the company's new glass-sheathed headquarters on Manhattan's Ninth Avenue, just two blocks west of City Center on 55th Street. It will be the largest building in the country devoted exclusively to the dance and is scheduled to open in 2004.

The company's five-week season at City Center will end Dec. 31 with a gala New Year's Eve program including "Here ... Now," "Revelations," and a new production of Louis Falco's 1976 work, "Caravan" with music by Duke Ellington.

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