Deep-rooted choreography

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 20, 2012
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It was a great week for popular dance-theater. Both the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (from New York, in Berkeley) and ODC/SF (dancing downtown at the Yerba Buena Center) had great crowds and presented beautifully rehearsed, thought-provoking, superbly danced programs that gave major satisfactions. The Ailey run is over, but ODC is still at the Novellus Theater through this weekend and deserves a look. Gay men should seriously consider going to see KT Nelson's Cut-out Guy, set on the five men in the company, since it presents a kind of same-sex partnering I've never seen before and found piercingly moving.

Both shows were gay-friendly. Alvin Ailey, who was a closeted African-American gay man �" well, he couldn't hide the dark skin �" created a multi-racial company that began to flourish in the 1950s and has survived him because of the deep-rooted genius of his dances and the power of his superbly trained, glamorous dancers in putting the material across. His masterpiece Revelations (1960), which is performed as the finale to every program, invariably brings down the house and sends the audience out transfigured. It's not just a feel-good piece; it's a brilliant composition with Aristotelian economy of means, a Dionysian, overflowing spirit, and the soul-stirring rhythms and moves of the black Christian church into which his mother and her community poured their hopes of salvation. The piece is so generous it slays you in the spirit whether you believe in Jesus or not; it does not require more than poetic faith, but it does allow you access to the inner sanctum, to see what kind of strengths religion could give those with almost no worldly power, to hold their heads high. Revelations is a sovereign remedy for depression. "Motherless Child," "O Sinner Man" take you to a place of great vulnerability and pain; "Wade in the Water" to a beatific vision of hope; "Rocka my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," the finale, gets happy in community. The rhythms are so infectious, the physical gladness they induce in your body is strong as any drug. Very good medicine.

Program 2 included Arden Court (1980), a classic modern dance by Paul Taylor (also gay), which I'd hoped to enjoy more than I did. But in motion, live, despite the clean action and well-studied posturing the dancers gave it, the pompous Baroque symphony by William Boyce seemed to bring them down, and pomp is pretty much what we got.

Yannick Lebrun of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

Brilliantly playful was Takademe, a witty solo by the company's new director Robert Battle, who seems likely to take the company into the middle of this century with all streamers flying. It was danced by Kirven James Boyd, bare-chested with red Missoni harem pants. The dance uses the syllabic rhythmic teaching-method of the dance of India, which sets up a swirling fantasia of shifting beats and micro-beats, realized in the body of the dancer using the isolation techniques of African dance. The entire body remains still while the rib-cage moves, then a hip does a small undulation, then the neck tilts in a bird-like move, then there's a huge jump with the legs splitting horizontally to 90 degrees, all in rapid succession, with nothing happening except the isolation. Battle got the idea when he was a student at Juilliard and passed by the classroom teaching Kathak, and listened to the intoxicating sounds of the dance-instruction.

Unfortunately, the thunderous drumming of Les Tambours du Bronx, who accompanied Battle's other work, The Hunt (all the dances were set to canned music), gave me such a headache I could not admire this quasi-ritual dance, which set six men in black samurai skirts to heroic martial-arts moves in geometric patterns while slapping themselves and jumping as high as they could, which was very high indeed.

Curiously, the athletic moves and very high jumps of KT Nelson's five men in their underwear did not give me the same heebie-jeebies. To the contrary, their jumps (set to music by Ben Frost) were thrilling, especially those of Daniel Santos, who can really get his butt into the air. ODC does not adopt the heroic attitudes of classic modern dance. They come in the postmodern tradition, and cultivate the "pedestrian" look of people waiting for the bus. Indeed, ODC has mastered the power of staying relaxed in moments of maximum exertion. Curiously, the last time dancers were this good at landing as if it were nothing was the Romantic era, when Marie Taglioni could land from a jump in which she had beat her legs like eyelashes fluttering to alight like a feather in a pose of artless grace.

Daniel Santos can do this. All of ODC's dancers can do this, and Santos and Vanessa Thiessen did this in a rather old-fashioned pas de deux set to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, in the finale of the show. But more wonderful than that was the duet for Santos and Jeremy Smith that ended Cut-out Guy �" which gave us an image of deep masculine friendship that reminds me of my father and his best friend, who died in Daddy's arms.

Two decades ago, my predecessor at the B.A.R. Keith White wrote that Brenda Way, co-founder of ODC, was going further into the real emotions that same-sex pioneering could convey than any other dance group he knew of anywhere. It is probably just serendipitous that Mark Morris' Beaux and KT Nelson's Cut-out Guy should present within a month of each other deeply observed portraits of the way guys interact. It's wonderful that Nelson's should be operating on the same level as Morris'.

Also on the show was a brilliant comedy by Kimi Okada, with crack timing, fantastic observation of the akimbo postures of young people choreographed into intricate patterns that were always clear and perfectly timed to the sound-score, which ranged from English as a Second Language to "Hello Kitty" pop songs. Brilliant.

A sad note. Modern dancers here mourn the death of Della Davidson, who died this week. During the AIDS era, when the  plague among us was the subject of rock-your-world choreography  by many hands, nobody's ballets mattered more than hers. At the time she herself had cancer, and it was anyone's guess whether she or her star dancer Tracy Rhoades (who had HIV) might die first. Rhoades created his own Requiem, one of the greatest ballets ever to come out of the Bay Area and perhaps the supreme monument to those who died in our holocaust. She outlived him by 20 years, and only this year won the dance community's highest accolade, the Dancer's Choice Award, for her continuing impact on dance in the Bay Area. She was a hero of our dance community, and a true friend of the gay community.