It’s been 50 years since the Celebrity Series of Boston first presented Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe at Boston’s John Hancock Hall in the tumultuous year of 1968—and Ailey’s company has become synonymous with expressing the African-American cultural experience through interpretive dance on Boston stages almost every year since. Ailey himself died in 1989, but his legacy has lived on, first through the artistic direction of Judith Jamison and now Robert Battle—and this week’s run at the Boch Center Wang Theatre proves the group’s skill and spirit remain unmatched.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s signature “Revelations,” which dates back to the group’s ’60s repertoire, still graces each Wang performance through this Sunday to the sounds of traditional spirituals. But the other rotating pieces shared at Thursday’s opening night provided a potent complement that drew from broad musical paragons in John Coltrane, Nina Simone and David Byrne.
A cluster of dancers in wide-brimmed sun hats reached to the sky to open the program with new work “Members Don’t Get Weary,” choreographed by company member Jamar Roberts, owing inspiration to the blues and reflecting our current socio-political landscape. In turn, with its slightly exaggerated sweeps and stretches, the piece suggested the pull and push of emotional forces both between dancers and beyond them, cued to the emotive jazz breakdowns of John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” and “Ole.” It closed with one female dancer peeling a male counterpart’s shirt down to his waist and moving from off-and-on embraces to her pushing him down and stepping forward in a declarative #MeToo gesture.
“The Golden Section” revived choreographer Twyla Tharp’s early ’80s “Catherine Wheel” collaboration with David Byrne. Dancers frolicked, pranced and flew across the stage in gilded gold to Byrne’s score, rolling shoulders and undulating their bodies to the Afro-percolating rhythms of “What a Day That Was.” Yet that more celebratory piece was somberly pulled back to earth by “In/Side,” where solo dancer Samuel Lee Roberts delivered a singular tour-de-force—rolling, writhing and dropping to the stage to soul priestess Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind.” When Simone sang, “You’re life itself, like a leaf clings to a tree,” the dancer let out a few gruff shouts in punctuation.
All of which led to “Revelations,” applauded by Thursday’s Wang audience before the curtain was even raised, bringing the night full circle to a cluster of dancers looking skyward for divine inspiration. A processional with flowing white dresses, maypoles and an umbrella rode a percussive undertow not unlike the one tapped early in Byrne’s music. “Wade in the Water” likewise found dancers stepping out to a seemingly updated beat while jiggled streamers simulated the movement of a river. The piece’s allusions to struggle were ultimately offset by the celebration of life as the company took “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” to finale.