For its 60th anniversary season last year, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater commissioned an ambitious new work from one of its favorites. The two-act “Lazarus,” choreographed by Rennie Harris, is a sprawling yet meticulously detailed epic that made its Garden State debut on May 10, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Concerned with Biblical themes of death and resurrection, “Lazarus” offers an unfurling panorama of hip-hop-infused movement set against a patchwork score by Darrin Ross in which the spoken word alternates with songs and rhythms, including the frightened thudding of a human heart. The setting is dark. Flashes of light suggest enemy attacks and the shade of the company’s late founder Alvin Ailey haunts the scene, either as a watchful silhouette or as a shaman who dances to show his successors the way forward. Occasionally god-like, he stuns one of them with lightning bolts of inspiration.
If the stage often resembles a battleground, recalling that archetypal Harris work “March of the Antmen,” it’s because the context here is the ongoing struggle for racial equality. “Lazarus” depicts a grim facet of the American experience that remains as harrowing today as it was in 1958, when the late Ailey formed his company as a refuge for black dancers and choreographers and as a bulwark against injustice.
Certain individuals stand out in “Lazarus,” becoming focal points, though none has a named character and the dance remains, significantly, an ensemble work.
Harris has correctly identified Jeroboam Bozeman as “Mr. Electricity,” standing in for Ailey and embodying the company’s spirit with his extraordinary movement quality. Bozeman is a rare talent, with the power to glide and float but then astonish with revelations of pulverizing force.
Daniel Harder, lithe and small of stature, portrays an innocent who witnesses atrocities and whose sufferings provide a thread of continuity. In a solo, Harder turns round and round himself and tumbles — the tight, personal space of the breakdancer becoming a metaphor for an individual trapped in conundrums and repeatedly needing to cushion his falls.
Harder is rarely alone, however. The opening of “Lazarus” shows him cradled in a pietà, linking the new work with “Exodus,” the choreographer’s previous creation for AAADT. Towering Jamar Roberts will come to Harder’s rescue periodically. At other times, Harder rises out of a group on the floor that both supports him and paws at him, as if the dead were reaching out of their graves.
The women in “Lazarus” have less prominent roles, though expressive Hope Boykin also becomes a rescuer in mannish attire, and Jacqueline Green has a twisty solo that exploits her long, flexible limbs. Chiefly, the women here form choruses of mourners.
Though the action is fragmented, with groups continually assembling and disintegrating and processions passing through, the two acts of “Lazarus” roughly correspond to two poles of experience.
Act One is filled with horrors: silent screams and images of restraint; groups flinching and attempting to hide from the light; dancers crawling on all fours, trembling and sinking. In this act, the performers flee, only to become stuck in gummy slow motion or arrested in attitudes of despair. They raise clasped hands beseechingly and their arms hang stiffly as they march with shoulders lifted.
Act Two offers redemption in the form of beautiful, pure-dance passages in which dancers and audience alike can safely abandon themselves. Here the dancers shield their eyes, but no longer fear the light. And Harder gets zapped.
Buoyant, skittering steps and jumps, low kicks and punchy gestures lead up to a moment of stillness in which the dancers appear to have attained nirvana, their bodies suffused with ecstatic awareness — a counterpoint to the vastly different stillness in Act One, where, raised on their toes with heads stiffly cocked, the performers had suggested lynching victims. When they mime brushing the dust from their shoes, the audience cheers.
Harris might have left it there, but either he couldn’t decide on an ending or he doesn’t mind milking us for applause. Amid several false conclusions, an onstage crowd bids Harder adieu, and we are left with a final glimpse of the shadowy figure who has been haunting these precincts. On one hand, the persistence of Ailey’s ghost feels comforting. On the other hand, one may devoutly wish that an end to the torments depicted here might set this guardian spirit free.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater also performs at NJPAC May 11 at 8 p.m. and May 12 at 3 p.m.; visit njpac.org.
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