Friday, August 8, 2008

Thursday Night in Prospect Park: Ailey II at Celebrate Brooklyn

Although we arrived 45 minutes ahead of last evening's Celebrate Brooklyn performance, which had an 8:00 p.m. starting time, it was the first time this summer that we had to stand on line to give our "three dollars at the gate to keep it great." That's a testimony to the interest, we guess, that Brooklynites had in dance and particularly the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, now celebrating its 50th anniversary season; its first performance was in March 1958, at the 92nd Street YMHA.

The crowds were enormous and seats already scarce when we found an aisle seat in the back on the extreme left side of the stage. And there were still more people coming to see Ailey II, a touring and outreach branch of the Ailey company under the direction of Sylvia Waters, a student of Martha Graham.

Since Alvin Ailey's groundbreaking career was inspired by a teen-aged encounter with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (as well as by studies with Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton), it was good to see lots of parents bringing their kids. The enthusiastic audience was very diverse in all respects, with about half of the large crowd of African descent.

At Fordham University's College at Lincoln Center, we've taught English to students in the highly innovative Fordham/Ailey B.F.A. program for talented young people who have to be highly disciplined, as they're essentially full-time students at both our wonderful four-year liberal arts college rooted in the Jesuit tradition and the very demanding Ailey School.

Young dancers don't have much time: they make their marks in their early 20s and most have to leave the stage by their late 30s. When we used to guest-teach at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) high school in the 80s and 90s, we learned that it's a myth that dancers aren't particularly verbal or intellectual. Dancers can be superior students in intensive writing courses because they're used to hard work, have high standards, take directions easily, and unlike a lot of kids their age, they have definite goals in what they want to do in life.

Anyway, it was so crowded that by the time Jack Walsh and Rachel Chanoff introduced the evening's program that many people were standing along the sides and in the back of the seated audience. They brought up City Council members David Yassky and Letitia James, who said, "Hey Brooklyn!" at least five times and then:

"Fifty years ago out of fire came creativity...fifty years ago part of Alvin Ailey's vision came this great dance troupe. We can thank Alvin Ailey that today all kids, and particularly kids of color, can see themselves on stages and one day growing up to be beautiful dancers, and that's what diversity is all about."

Ailey II, a 12-member troupe, works solidly and with excitement, as they proved in their Associate artistic director Troy Powell's The External Knot, inventively set of music of Philip Glass (there's a weirdly interposed sequence with Schumann's "Traumerei" in the middle).

As Chuck Klaus of the Syracuse Post-Herald said, "The External Knot is a masterful suite of dances and atmospheric, nearly romantic minimal music and strong physical gestures."

We don't have the vocabulary to discuss dance intelligently, but here's the description from the Ailey website:
Troy Powell’s The External Knot is a modern work that follows the journey of a young man who attempts to show a group of individuals that he does not need them and is sufficient on his own. The piece captures the internal battle the young man is fighting against being lonely. He goes through stages of despair, alienation and finally reconciliation. The group tries to encourage the man to join them while they experience their own trials and tribulations. By the end of The External Knot the man is not certain whether or not he wants to be a part of the group, but it is clear that he has made some sort of breakthrough.

Renaldo Gardner (we think, given his top billing in the program sheet) did an outstanding job as the young man, with great work from all the dancers, especially Aisha Mitchell and Josh Johnson, who are also featured. Other dancers included Levi Marsman, Taeler Cyrus, Chang Yong Sung, Megan Jakel, Rachel McSween and Tyrone C. Walker.

The crowd obviously enjoyed the performance a lot, although some of us really strained to see at times. Shortly after the program begun, there seemed to be shouting from the back, and then it seemed like chanting, and finally we could discern the chant: "Please sit down! Please sit down!"

We did the opposite, actually, after we joined the rest of the audience in applauding wildly as the ensemble took their bows: we stood up and gave our seat to someone even more elderly who was standing on the side. After intermission, seeing the rest of the program was problematic, so we decided to leave early and we'll catch them another time. But we were really glad that Celebrate Brooklyn and the Ailey organization brought this show to Prospect Park, especially for the borough's kids.

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