Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's upcoming season at New York City Center, from December 2 to January 3, will take the world's most popular modern dance company in fascinating new directions, showcasing the Ailey dancers in an abundance of pre- mieres from choreographers as varied as Kyle Abraham and Paul Taylor. But even as it moves boldly forward under the leadership of Artistic Director Robert Battle, the Company will also shine a spotlight on several classic dances by Ailey that have been absent from the repertory for a while.
In addition to the return of Blues Suite, the 1958 work in which Ailey brought to vivid life memories from his early years in rural Texas, there will be new productions of two classic solo works that Ailey made for dancers who were especially important to him: Cry, the landmark work which he made in 1971 for Judith Jamison, and Love Songs, a 1972 solo for Dudley Williams, a beloved longtime company member who died earlier this year.
"I thought it was a good time for this generation to start learning more about this work," says Masazumi Chaya, the company's Associate Artistic Director and the keeper of the Ailey flame in terms of knowing and teaching the founder's choreography. Speaking just after his return from the company's three-week South African tour in September, Chaya remembers that he learned Blues Suite (as well as Revelations) as soon as he joined the company in 1972.
Returning to the repertory for the first time in six years, the work will feature live music by Kenny Brawner and The Brawner Brothers Band at every performance. Stag- ing this major work, with its contrasting sections, dramatic encounters, and shifting moods, is a huge job, Chaya says, "but it's so much fun. I always call it 'visiting Alvin' each time I teach his work."
He hopes to convey to the current gen- eration of dancers what he absorbed from Ailey when they first worked on the piece. "He really loved to talk about the story of what he experienced when he was young." For this new production, Chaya is empha- sizing the individual characters that each dancer portrays through movement. "This time, I tried to stage it so each dancer sustains a specific character from start to finish."
Once Chaya has taught them the chore- ography, he'll invite Jamison and Sylvia Waters: the former company member who went on to lead Ailey II for four decades: "to come take a look" and offer their insights on details and nuances gleaned from their long experience with Blues Suite.
Chaya's mention of Jamison indicates how the former Artistic Director: whom Ailey selected to take over the company, and who herself identified Robert Battle as her successor in 2011: remains deeply connected to the company. This year marks 50 years since she joined the Ailey company as a very young dancer in whom the choreographer clearly spotted a unique and powerful potential. The company will salute her 50th anniversary with a special New Year's Eve program, and will also in- crude A Case of You, a duet that she choreographed for the company in 2005, in the season's repertory.
"I wouldn't even have known it was 50 years had Chaya not mentioned it," Jamison says. Her current status as Artistic Director Emerita keeps her involved with Ailey, even as she keeps busy with lectures, workshops, and other projects. "I have an office there. I participate when I participate. It's just wonderful. If they need me for a rehearsal, I'm there. If the company is in a good place, I'm in a good place."
She will certainly be in the studio to as- sist with the new production of Cry, which a new group of company women will be learning: and which Ailey veteran Linda Celeste Sims, who has been the demanding solo's leading interpreter in recent years, will also be performing.
Jamison will convey her essential first- hand knowledge of Cry to the dancers, but she won't be able to recall specific words that Ailey used: largely because he didn't say much to her while building the piece. "Alvin and I had a different kind of com- munication," she says. "There was less information needed back then because of the level of communication, and the spiritual connection, that we had. I consider rehearsal space a sacred place. There are things that go on in that atmosphere that don't need to be said. They can be felt, and seen _ and then you do it. Because we only had eight days [to create Cry]. Now, because dancers are further and further from the master, then more things have to be explained. That goes with the terri- tory." Jamison and Chaya both mention Donna Wood-Sanders, the former leading company member who inherited Cry from Jamison, as someone who also provides in- valuable coaching to the women learning the dance. "She is miraculous," Jamison says.
Whether or not Ailey intended Love Songs as a specific male counterpart to Cry when he made it a year later, he ended up creating a similarly definitive role for Dudley Williams. Like Cry, it was set to three contrasting songs: in this case, sung by Donny Hathaway and Nina Simone: that combine to create a multi-faceted portrait.
Jamison recalls how personal and mov- ing the work was at its premiere. "It hit the right place in the heart for him," she says of Williams, who joined the company in 1964 and enjoyed a longer tenure than any other Ailey dancer in history, creating many in- delible roles over the course of 41 years. "I was in tears," says Jamison, "with the kind of joy a dancer feels seeing another dancer wrap themselves completely around what is obviously theirs, and then share it with you. We took in all the parts of Dudley then: his humor, his sadness, his joy, his dedication, his dignity."
About a year before he died, Williams worked with five of the Ailey men on "A Song for You," the first of the work's three sections. They performed it in his memory during the company's Lincoln Center sea- son in June. "It was very important to show what he had passed on to them: and say Thank you, Dudley," Chaya observes. Now Chaya will expand on that beginning, guid- ing the current dancers to discover and embody the complete arc of Love Songs.
Celebrating the past remains important to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater even as it marches into the future with challenging works such as Paul Taylor's Piazzolla Caldera and Ronald K. Brown's Open Door joining its repertory. (Open Door will be created with the support of commis- sioning funds from City Center.)
"Robert is doing a fabulous job: which is what I expected, which is why I wanted him in place," says Jamison. "Because it is about succession; that's what Alvin did for me, and what I did for Robert. What I did during my 50 years has prepared them to proceed with or without me. That's the beauty of this whole thing."
Susan Reiter is a freelance performing arts journalist whose articles appear in the Los Angeles Times, TDFStages, and many other publications.