Before Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater became a household name, there were strings of one-night stands and late nights on the road when the dancers made do with thermoses and blankets. Touring is still a key to this troupe’s popularity, however, and before they achieve stardom the young artists of Ailey’s junior company, Ailey II, must grow accustomed to it.
You could catch them at it on Wednesday, when Ailey II stopped to perform at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood. For these youngsters recapitulating Ailey’s history and retracing the bumpy road to fame and fortune, performances like this one represent pure opportunity — to get the hang of a tricky move; to be noticed; to build physical stamina. They aren’t just paying their dues. You can tell how much it means to them from the go-for-broke energy they bring to every step, surprising themselves as they discover what they’re capable of.
This junior ensemble functions just like its parent troupe, offering a mixed repertoire of masterworks and novelties. Wednesday’s program featured the late founder’s ever astonishing “Revelations,” plus two recent commissions. Yet when Ailey II performs, the atmosphere comes charged with different thrills. For the suavity and polish of experienced dancers, substitute the longing and dread of a make-or-break performance, and the excitement of talent spotting. It’s like being at Schwab’s Pharmacy in old Hollywood, the day before a big producer makes a discovery, when the pretty head bent over an ice-cream soda is still a little nobody. Soon people will point at her and whisper “she’s a star!” — but you saw her way back when.
A dance called “I Am the Road,” choreographed by Kyle “JustSole” Clark, makes a friendly program opener. The young man who is its protagonist steps forward right away and tells us he has just graduated from college; so we know why, when his companions appear, they shade their eyes with one hand, bending and peering into the distance. Like our newfound friend, the graduate, they’re searching for a job; a steady squeeze; a life.
No one agonizes over the prospects. Inspired by the rhythms of house music, the cast skitters joyfully, flexing and pumping their limbs, or they sink into their legs and hang loose. You can tell the choreographer is a hip-hop artist from the way he conserves space. The highlight of “I Am the Road” is the large ensemble containing smaller groups that distinguish themselves as they circulate by facing front or turning in profile. Love finds a way even inside this machine. The graduate, danced by Lloyd A. Boyd III, soon meets Courtney Ross, and just as promptly loses her, only to find her again. Their peripatetic romance keeps us on the hook until all the dancers pair up, and the piece ends in a general love-in.
“Something Tangible” — the evening’s second new work, by Broadway choreographer Ray Mercer — is more abstract. Here the drama lies in the movement, and in the way dancers connect: skidding to a stop and latching onto one another; springing onto someone’s back; or forming lines with arms linked shoulder-to-shoulder. Connections like these appear firm, but how secure are they really? In a haunting round-robin, dancers blow air at one another — poof — causing individuals to melt and structures to collapse.
With its technical demands and muscular partnering, “Something Tangible” makes a wonderful exercise for these young artists, and dancers like Gabriel Hyman, Courtney Celeste Spears and Terrell Spence prove they are up to the challenge.
Nothing tests these youngsters like “Revelations,” however, where they must step into familiar roles that generations of Ailey dancers have marked. This masterwork also showcases much more than physical virtuosity, demanding expressivity, imagination and that undefinable but instantly recognizable quality we call “soul.” Here, despite the trappings of another time and place, the dancers reveal most about themselves.
In addition to those already mentioned, Deidre Rogan and Jacoby Pruitt stand out in a performance of “Fix Me, Jesus” contrasting her solidity with his otherworldliness, while Nathaniel Hunt brings clarity and poignancy to the delicately balanced solo “I Wanna Be Ready.” Seeing a young person in that role, it becomes less about a mature man facing death than about a boy struggling to remain pure. This distinction is important and affecting, because we know that even if the soloist in “I Wanna Be Ready” succeeds in resisting the world’s temptations, the fact he has experienced them means he already has lost his innocence; and because that very transition from child to man plants the seed of his eventual mortality.
While other parts of “Revelations,” like “Sinner Man” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” have an uncharacteristic lightness here, they, too, can only benefit from an infusion of youth, giving us the sense we are watching life branch and blossom before our eyes.