The dream of love never dies, even when love becomes a battleground. That was the message on May 12, when the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark with a program featuring two new works exploring the vagaries of romance. Capping the first show of its weekend engagement, the troupe offered a beautifully polished rendition of Ailey’s masterwork, Revelations.
The art of dancing lends itself especially well to depicting relationships, and squabbling couples have been a feature of the Ailey repertoire since Alvin Ailey’s Blues Suite (1958). The novelty of choreographer Jamar Roberts’ In a Sentimental Mood and Kyle Abraham’s Are You in Your Feelings? lies not in the theme, but in the ways contemporary artists find to express it. While the first of these 2022 works is an extended duet, generating drama in an airless, overheated parlor, the other seems to take place outdoors. Abraham introduces a whole neighborhood where young people play at love, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business.
Ghrai DeVore-Stokes strides onto the stage at the outset of In a Sentimental Mood. Dressed stylishly in a white coat and red gloves, she’s an attention-getter. When we see her vacillate with exaggerated gestures, unsure of which direction to go in, we learn that she’s a drama queen, too.
DeVore-Stokes quickly leads us behind a scrim, into the dim precincts where Chalvar Monteiro awaits her passively, his character quiet and withdrawn. During their dance together, he sinks repeatedly, his movements sweeping the floor and placing him in a lowly position. DeVore-Stokes rejects his overtures, but at one point she has to hold him up, her legs scampering beneath them. They are both unhappy and given to tantrums, he rolling in her overcoat and she scattering a vaseful of flowers. (At one point, I wondered if she would actually murder him, but no, she merely dumped him and moved on.) If DeVore-Stokes were not such a lovely dancer, it would be hard to watch this heartless, egotistical character devour her prey.
The scene in Are You in Your Feelings? is considerably more relaxed, although this dance’s principal couple, Ashley Kaylynn Green and Monteiro, have troubles of their own. Their relationship reaches a crisis when she tries to stand on his leg but is abruptly let down. Monteiro’s failure to support her precipitates not just a break between them, but also a public scandal. The other dancers, shocked, turn as a group to watch him stalk offstage.
Curiously, a similar setup occurs near the end of the “Fix Me Jesus” pas de deux in Revelations, where the woman also steps onto the man’s leg. In “Fix Me Jesus,” he then scoops her up protectively, but the characters in Are You in Your Feelings? have rejected such traditional gender roles. In this up-to-the-minute work, women and men take turns partnering each other, opting to share power, so it is not clear what Green’s character expects from Monteiro, or why she is disappointed when he fails to act the Savior.
Green and Monteiro are not the only couple in Abraham’s work, which also features fashionable, same-sex pairings. One of these is played for laughs, in a “skit” set to the song “Woman to Woman,” during which DeVore-Stokes and Caroline T. Dartey get it on together in revenge for being double-timed. As the man who sought to deceive them, Renaldo Maurice bursts in crying “Barbara! What are you doing?!” and is promptly called out for his hypocrisy.
The male duet, in contrast, is gentle and dreamy, with Michael Jackson Jr. and James Gilmer basking in each other’s aura, so close they can surely hear their hearts pound, but exquisitely delaying their embrace. Gilmer’s character was already dazed, not noticing the moment when DeVore-Stokes slipped away from him, ending an earlier encounter. During the duet with Jackson, neither man notices Sarah Daley-Perdomo dancing nearby (any relationship between two people necessarily excludes others, so why does it have to be the Gay duet that makes this woman sad and lonely?).
Rich in such incidents, Are You in Your Feelings? also features a subtle formal organization, with dancers loosely scattered or gathered into a powerful wedge, and with a section in which their toggling hands reflect the rhythm. Further varying the stage picture, Green dances a breakout solo. Influenced by hip-hop as much as modern dance, the choreography combines fluid upper-body movements with solid balances and leg extensions. A pop music medley makes this dance a crowd-pleaser — plus there is a happy ending.
Performances of Revelations are always heartfelt, and powerfully danced. A special treat, however, is watching Christopher Taylor in “Sinner Man” and in the concluding ensemble. This Newark native, who joined the troupe last year, brings a clarity and fullness to the movement that makes it seem freshly minted. What a homecoming!
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will return to NJPAC in Newark next year, May 10-12. Visit alvinailey.org or ticketmaster.com.
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