Two ghost stories and a bedtime story kept viewers enthralled when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater made its annual visit to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark this weekend. This beloved company brought a program of atmospheric dances by contemporary choreographers Kyle Abraham, Rennie Harris and Christopher Wheeldon to the stage of Prudential Hall, May 13, before concluding with the indispensable “Revelations.”
These dances, as artistic director Robert Battle pointed out before the show, reflected this company’s long-standing commitment to social justice. Abraham’s “Untitled America,” a 2016 premiere, is inspired by mass incarceration in the United States while Harris’ 2015 creation “Exodus” alludes to the wanton destruction of black youth that has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
These are heavy subjects. Yet in a racist society in which Mother’s Day is also Black Mamas Bailout Day, we can ill afford to avert our gaze. Moreover, these dances by Abraham and Harris offer terrific examples of how artists can transform their material, turning a sordid reality into dreams and weaving a complex fabric of movement and emotion that both comforts the afflicted and gives courage to those resisting oppression. When our government and the mainstream media fail us, we depend upon the integrity of our artists to lead us into a better future.
So, these dances resemble ghost tales. Instead of an iPhone video of police brutality, Harris gives us a shadowy landscape littered with bodies. As “Exodus” opens, Jacquelin Harris kneels, grieving, in a downstage corner, while on the other side of a wasteland Michael Jackson Jr. advances toward her with outsize steps. He comes to raise her up, shielding her eyes with his hand. The dance progresses from an image of near-frozen slowness to pulsing, skittering activity, but the key moments show characters knocked over and then placed solidly back on their feet. Jackson, after doing battle in a corner, is rescued by the community; he catches Daniel Harder in his arms after a fatal shot rings out.
Jackson cuts a heroic figure as the dance’s muscular spirit guide while Harder, with his puppy-dog eyes and sharp reflexes, makes a convincingly shell-shocked victim. Having the cast change from everyday clothes into the white robes of sainthood, however, seems too obvious a debt to Ronald K. Brown’s “Grace.”
In “Untitled America,” Abraham is similarly light on context. His dance does not offer a historical perspective about both Republican and Democratic parties conspiring to imprison a large segment of America’s Black population – with Richard Nixon launching the so-called “War on Drugs” and Bill Clinton enacting the “Violent Crime Control Act” and supporting laws that undermine habeas corpus. The incarcerated, of course, are not allowed to be idle. They work for pennies in a diabolical system that makes corporate outsourcing redundant and substitutes for the economic “loss” of slavery.
Viewers will have to figure that out for themselves, though. What “Untitled America” does offer is an oblique yet sensible view of the effect that incarceration has on individuals and their families.
Here, too, the stage appears dim, with shafts of light piercing the gloom as if from windows set high in the wall. At other times, Dan Scully’s lighting may suggest the drab corridors of an inmate’s mind. The minimal scenery consists of a horizontal beam divided into rectangular sections like cinder blocks, yet this spare element effectively compresses the scene. Below the beam, the dancers are free to move within a world of the imagination where certain gestures point to their confinement.
Often they hold their hands behind their backs, as if handcuffed. And in that position they are gently laid to rest. They clench the invisible bars of a cell with both hands and seem to place a mysterious object in a back pocket.
More subtly, the dance makes its point through contrast: straight lines and symmetrical figures provide a structural framework for gentle, often spiraling movements and tender embraces reminding us of the way buildings of concrete and steel enclose living, breathing flesh. Abraham won’t allow us to forget that the incarcerated, however distant, are still alive.
Meanwhile, we hear prisoners tell their own stories in voiceovers, which the dance may lightly illustrate. An early duet for Ghrai DeVore and Jamar Roberts, for instance, echoes the resignation of a woman whose lover turned state’s evidence against her. Bitterness is surprisingly absent from these interviews, which may be accompanied by a far-off clangor, as of heavy doors slamming; with a spiritual song (“Never Turn Back”); or with the plaintive voice of Laura Mvula (“Show Me Love”). Yet the dancing, though soft, carries a profound weight of sadness.
As might be expected, Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” Pas de Deux, originally created for New York City Ballet, takes place in another world entirely. Here the focus is on the clarity of the dancers’ lines, with the deceptive simplicity of the choreography suggesting a relationship of elemental, childlike dependency. Arvo Pärt’s score for piano and strings — a kind of musical baby-talk — adds to the nursery-room atmosphere.
Jacqueline Green showed off her gorgeous legs in splits, arabesques and high developpés while Yannick Lebrun provided steadfast support in a challenging partnering role.
Though as plotless as such a duet can be, “After the Rain” ultimately suggests a bedtime story in the way that Green arched her body and Lebrun slid underneath, like a person crawling into bed and pulling up the covers.