A gunshot ignites the movement on stage, as sixteen young dancers erupt from their huddle and begin to slink, crawl and leap across the stage. A woman’s heavy, rhythmic moans penetrate the theatre, and soon evidence of Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” emerges from her cries. A male dancer takes center stage, extending his muscular limbs, mouth open as his cries for help echo the cries coming from the speakers. There’s an intoxicating blend of hip hop, break and modern dance; all the while the moans serve as the metronome, over which more beat-driven music plays. Members of the audience nod their heads, shake their seated hips and, at times, lose their breath to the mesmerizing display of pain and performance before them. And as the dance reaches its climax, another gunshot rings out, the dancers freeze, the man falls and the curtain hides the mourning.
Deep in the crowd, a young boy cries and cowers in his mother’s arms. “It’s scary,” he repeats.
What’s scary is “Exodus,” the opening performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, who held residency at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts from Wednesday, April 6 to Sunday, April 10. Thursday night’s show started with the shivering piece “Exodus,” choreographed by Rennie Harris, which ignited the tone for the rest of the night — one of sorrow, triumph, joy and ultimately, hope.
Alvin Ailey founded his dance theatre in 1958 after he and a group of fellow Black modern dancers held an impromptu performance on the streets of New York City. From there Ailey developed the company into “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world,” as a 2008 U.S. Congressional resolution denoted. Over its 50+ years of touring and creating, Ailey’s company has transformed modern dance into a token of Black artistic expression, communicating it through movement and rhythm to audiences around the world. To see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is to see the creation of art history.
From “Exodus” came “No Longer Silent,” choreographed by artistic director Robert Battle. The piece dressed 18 dancers in black military uniforms. However, the lines between soldier and prisoner, captain and captive continually blur, set to a thundering musical score based on old compositions that the Nazis had banned. By doing so, Battle causes the audience to create some unsettling parallels between the Black Experience with that of Jews in the Holocaust.
After two emotionally draining pieces, “A Case of You” provided a tender breath of fresh air. Starting with no music, only the sound of Rachael McLaren and Yannick Lebrun’s gentle footfalls, the two dancers began to relay a beautiful love story. Through the silence, the dancers were at their most exposed, without noise, without distractions, without anything to hide behind. The audience applauded at the most exhilarating movements, mainly involving McLaren’s expert twining around Lebrun’s immaculately built physique.
To close the show, the whole company took stage for “Revelations,” Ailey’s magnum opus, consisting of three parts, further divided into ten individual pieces. It’s an odyssey of Black history, stemming from Ailey’s rural Texas upbringing in the mid-1900s. “Revelations” blends spirituality, discrimination and poverty into one stunning amalgamation of movement, culminating into the performance “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” For this final performance, the company wore traditional plantation garb and danced an uplifting message of hope and faith. This sums up Ailey’s interpretation of oppression: faith. At the end of the night, all anyone could walk away with was a stronger belief in tomorrow.