Performing Arts

Review: Alvin Ailey brings its primal style to the Kauffman center

“Lift,” by Aszure Barton, was the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s final piece on Thursday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
“Lift,” by Aszure Barton, was the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s final piece on Thursday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Paul Kolnik

Kansas City took a break from baseball Thursday night at the Kauffman Center.

The outside of the building was bathed in blue light and had a Royals logo projected on the western facade, but inside there was poetry in motion of a different sort.

A performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater embodied the best and worst of the venerable troupe, and the Muriel Kauffman Theatre was two-thirds full for the event.

Sometimes the show was sexy, slinky, primal and turbulently human — exactly what made the company one of the world’s best.

At worst, the two-plus hour performance felt predictable and dated, with all the current cultural relevance of a Flock of Seagulls haircut. At the very worst, which was only sporadic, the performances were simply flat.

Robert Battle, Alvin Ailey’s artistic director since 2010, has spent the first few years of his tenure trying to strike a delicate balance. He must stay true to the company’s founding vision by performing new and challenging works. But he also has to keep the core audience happy with classics from the company’s extensive, decades-old repertoire.

It’s roughly analogous to the problems faced by a big, touring rock band. Battle has to perform the oldies, lest casual fans leave unhappy. But he can’t only “play the hits” without turning his troupe into nothing but nostalgia.

Thursday’s show proved how tough that balancing act can be.

The opener “Memoria” was a classic, performed because it had to be. With choreography by Ailey himself and music by Keith Jarrett, the piece was created in 1979 as a tribute to Ailey’s late friend, Joyce Trisler. A company workhorse, “Memoria” is performed virtually every year. Thursday’s version, unfortunately, was rote and a little sloppy.

There was nothing terribly wrong, no great disasters. We only saw a tiny leg quiver here, the slightest elbow tremble there. But that’s enough. Dance is a profoundly delicate art, and even tiny slips can turn a potentially great performance into a merely good one.

Worse, the performers in “Memoria” simply lacked passion. Even the best dancers will make physical mistakes. It’s near inevitable. Those missteps are forgivable, though, when made in the service of passionate performance. Save for brief flashes by lead Jacqueline Green, last night’s “Memoria” didn’t have much.

The piece also used more than two dozen older students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. They were cute, coming onstage wearing tight outfits in bold colors, a deliberate contrast with the main dancers’ gauzy pastels.

Sadly, though, the kids weren’t given much to do. They mainly seemed there to serve as background and, of course, induce relatives to buy tickets. Audience members paying as much as $100 for their seats — at least those who aren’t related to someone on stage — generally expect more than a half-amateur cast.

Things improved with the second piece, “Bad Blood.” Another classic, the show was created by Ulysses S. Dove for Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, making its Ailey debut in 1986.

Dove was obviously in touch with a then-nascent hip-hop scene when he created this now-famous work. Sexy and vibrant, with lots of couples swirling, stalking and grappling, it was impossible to tell whether we were watching courtships or the start of a small-scale war.

That, one supposes, is the point. The entire cast, clearly engaged, was emotive and sharp, with distinct articulation of every step.

The oldies done, it was time for the experimental new stuff. Only the evening’s final piece, “Lift” by Aszure Barton, was created in this century, 2013.

Barton, a New York City-based Canadian, has worked for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the American Ballet Theatre, and the wildly innovative Nederlands Dans Theater. Sparkling resume or not, however, “Lift” was simply odd, fluctuating between brilliant and baffling.

At times it was fresh and urgent. Like the strangely compelling pas de deux where the female lead kept her head pressed against a partner’s sternum as he drove her backward across the stage.

Other times, “Lift” didn’t seem to have much happening on stage. A frequent element was long lines of male dancers waving their arms and stomping; an effect somewhere between African tribal dances and the high-stepping crews of historically black fraternities. During these fuzzy moments, not surprisingly, the dancers’ attention once again would occasionally wane.

Alvin Ailey is unquestionably a world-class company. The lighting and costumes are always excellent. The dancers invariably have gorgeous bodies and top-notch technique.

That alone, however, is not enough to create great art. Dance without emotion is glorified gymnastics. It might be entertaining and impressive, stirring the mind, but only passion can make movement that also stirs the soul.

This venerable company can stay on top by delivering a blend like last night’s; a mix of mostly old hits with a few challenging new works.

The repertoire won’t matter, though, unless they deliver everything with plenty of heat.

▪ Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. Tickets are $28-$99. The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey’s 2014 G30 Gala begins with cocktails at 6 p.m. Saturday, with a performance at 7:15. For sponsorships and tickets, go to kcfaa.org.

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