Tour celebrates the legacy of Alvin Ailey, whose dance company turns 60 this year
Robert Battle likens the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s diverse repertory to a buffet of delicious dance offerings.
The company is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a San Diego tour stop next week and Battle is its third artistic director, chosen in 2011 by Judith Jamison, who took over for Ailey when he died in 1989.
The New York-based company presents two evenings of dance, presented by the La Jolla Music Society. Both nights feature the moving masterpiece “Revelations,” a work created by Ailey in 1960, set to a suite of spirituals that reflect all of the emotions of worship, from angst to joyous gratitude.
The three-section dance includes a reverent solo, a stunning duet and works by company dancers. Women twirl in giant, circular white skirts, swinging white umbrellas fringed with ruffles. And bare-chested men in white pants incorporate wide, sweeping movements that suggest embracing the divine.
“It’s really about the notion of what it means to be human — which is so much a part of the arts and a part of dance,” Battle explains.
“It’s relating on a human level to the things we all deal with in the world, the things we have to overcome. Certainly that’s part of the DNA of the company.”
Tuesday’s show at Jacobs Music Center includes newer works by three choreographers. There’s “Stack-Up” by Talley Beatty, a 1970s-era dance reflecting street life, complete with disco ball and accompanied by horn-driven tracks that include Earth, Wind & Fire music.
Ronald K. Brown’s “The Call” is a celebration of Ailey’s influence performed to music that segues from Bach to jazz to West African music.
And there are two energetic works by Battle: “Ella” a tribute to jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and “Juba,” hailed as a modern day “Rite of Spring.”
Wednesday’s show, titled “Timeless Ailey,” is a selection of Ailey choreography that includes dances honoring jazz greats, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker.
When Battle balances the legacy of Alvin Ailey with the future direction of the company, he’s not afraid to spice things up.
There are new works by exciting, young choreographers, and there’s Megan Jakel, a Caucasian dancer who, well, stands out.
“The company has always been integrated,” Battle says. “Certainly the majority has been African American — that was the way Alvin Ailey started it. But Megan can handle the diversity of the repertory. We go from (British choreographer) Wayne McGregor to hip-hop with Rennie Harris, then West African with Ronald K. Brown, and that is the litmus test. She is a fireball and she’s fearless.”
Jakel joined the company in 2009 after graduating with honors from the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program.
She is easily identified because, as she puts it, she’s “five-foot-one and pasty white with screamin’ red hair.”
Growing up in Michigan, Jakel wanted to be a ballet dancer and started lessons at age 3. She left home to study at City Ballet of San Diego, but quickly understood that modern dance would be a better fit.
“When I landed at City Ballet, that was a big reality check,” Jakel says with a laugh. “I don’t have a traditional ballet body at all. I am more womanly. I celebrate my body, and it is capable of many things. But it is definitely not appreciated in the world of ballet.”
In the Ailey company, though, Jakel fits right in with a strength and physicality that complements the modern repertory, whether she is in heels dancing in “Stack-Up,” or in the poignant “Fix Me Jesus,” a physically demanding, emotional duet that reflects dependence on a higher power.
Getting to express iconic work, Jakel says, is a privilege that she never takes for granted, and she believes that arts in education is the key to effectively sharing the beauty of different cultures.
As artistic director, Battle says that choosing repertory that expresses a varied human experience is a lot like choosing a menu for his friends.
“There is all of this fusion,” he says. “I see so many beautiful ways that we have acknowledged each other’s flavors. You should walk away from this buffet feeling like, now I’m interested in having more of that.”
La Jolla Music Society presents: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 26, and Wednesday, March 27. A 7 p.m. prelude interview is hosted by Molly Puryear.
Where: Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center, 750 B St., downtown
Phone: (858) 459-3728
Manna is a freelance writer.
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