Masters at Work, The Ailey-Ellington Connection

When producers Kenny “Dope” Gonzales and Louie Vega formed Masters at Work in 1990, they proceeded to create a catalog that contains some of house music’s most recognizable classics.  Such is the case when two great creative minds come together to collaborate.  It seemed that from the time Alvin Ailey hit the streets of The Big Apple in 1954, he and Duke Ellington’s paths were destined to meet.  Both he and Ellington were born in different areas of the country but had come to New York City to pursue their art, although by the time young Ailey had arrived, Ellington had already cemented his legacy as a jazz virtuoso.  However, it didn’t take long for Ailey to begin to carve a name for himself in the world of dance.  With pieces like “Revelations” and “Blues Suite”, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which was formed in 1958, quickly became a sensation in the modern dance scene.  Like Ellington, Ailey was known for a unique style infusing ballet, Horton, jazz and African dance  techniques.  Also like Ellington, Ailey lifted his art above the grouping of race which allowed his work to be recognized as an American art form the world over.

AAADT's Demetia Hopkins in Alvin Ailey's The River.  Photo by Paul KolnikIn 1970, Alvin Ailey and Duke Ellington’s paths finally met.  American Ballet Theater commissioned Ailey to create “The River”.  The ballet was the first collaboration between Alvin Ailey and Duke Ellington.  Ailey would again refer to Ellington’s music when he created “Night Creature” in 1974 and “Pas de Duke” in 1976.  For the 2013 season, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater paid homage to these late geniuses and their collaborations by premiering new productions of “The River” and “Pas de Duke” at the New York City Center.  Along with the first season’s performance of “Night Creature” and Ailey’s most seminal work, “Revelations”, the debut of these works was an evening of remembrance, revelry and appreciation for beauty, physicality and style in motion.

AAADT weaves athleticism and artistry so seamlessly that it takes the medium of dance to another level.  Visually stunning and always breathtaking to behold, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater never fail to provide its audience with the most soul-stirring shows they will ever see.  It is where perfection and performance meet.  This sentiment simply radiates through “The River”, a work that utilizes the entire company and is as moving, fierce and romantic as its namesake.   With the accompaniment of Duke Ellington’s score driving this piece forward, the love Ailey had for dance is truly exhibited.  The way in which he carefully blended classical ballet elements together with modern techniques is nothing short of masterful.    “The River” is energetic; it rolls and sweeps the audience in its majesty.  It is a living example of the brilliance of these two men.

AAADT's Antonio Douthit-Boyd and Linda Celeste Sims in Alvin Ailey's Pas de Duke.  Photo by Paul Kolnik“Pas de Duke” was first created for Ailey’s muse Judith Jamison and ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. Black and white, modern versus ballet, Eve and Adam, “Pas de Duke” is witty, flirtatious, sophisticated and utterly charming.  Ailey must of thought of the song “Anything You Can Do” when he choreographed this piece.

Alvin_Ailey_American_Dance_Theater_in_Alvin_Ailey_s_Night_Creature._Photo_by_Krautbauer_2_As one of the children of the night, I have always had a fondness for those who skulk down sidewalks, saunter into nightclubs and compete with colored spotlights for the glory of a night filled with sweat and velocity. On many occasions, I have been one of them creating new realities on the dance floor.  Ellington said, “Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come out at night, they come on.”  I would say they come out to be alive, alive in a way they can’t be when the sun is shining.  Alvin Ailey’s “Night Creature” is overflowing with life.  The company slinks, leaps and struts with authority.  It defines the sumptuous nightlife that New York City is known for.

AAADT_in_Alvin_Ailey_s_Revelations._Photo_by_Christopher_DugganThere can be no better end to an evening with AAADT than “Revelations”.  It is the work that Alvin Ailey is most known for and definitely on the top my list. Seeing Alvin Ailey’s choreography paired with Duke Ellington’s music gave me a few revelations of my own.  There is no debate why the majority of their works are regarded as masterpieces.  I would liken the Ailey-Ellington collaborations to an artistic atom bomb – an explosion of epic scale whose far reaching effects have spanned over generations.

Photos: Paul Kolnik, Christopher Duggan, Gert Krautbauer

Mr. Tol E RAncE is Brilliant

I didn’t realized how rare it was to witness the emergence of a masterpiece before December 7, 2013.   “A Love Supreme”, “A Raisin in the Sun”, Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”, often times the works I regard as masterpieces were created before I was born, but the thing about a masterpiece is you know one when you see one.  It rocks your head back and socks you directly in the breadbasket.  After seeing Camille A. Brown’s “Mr. Tol E. Rance” my head has been popped up Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots style.


Camille A. Brown

Like “Revelations”, “Mr. Tol E RAncE” was born from choreographer Camille A. Brown’s personal experiences.  Frustrated with the game many artists must master in order gain recognition or make a living, Ms. Brown started on a journey that culminated in this powerful, introspective piece.  Through exploring her own emotions, Ms. Brown was also influenced by Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”, Mel Watkins’ “On the Real Side” and the idea of the modern day minstrel.  Utilizing sketch comedy, live music and animation, “Mr. Tol E RAncE” presents a mirror to the audience allowing them to examine the influence that stereotypes have had on black culture and art.  The stereotype is the mask the artist wears to become successful, but what happens when one becomes imprisoned by it?

The Company in TOL... PC_Christopher.Duggan_166Hattie McDaniel was once quoted as saying she would rather make $700 a week playing a maid than make $7 a week being one.  This sentiment speaks to the first act of the production.  Beginning with photographs and videos of comedic actors and shows, the dance troupe then provides a blistering, rhythmic history lesson, sometimes acting out the gestures of famous black characters.  An episode of “The Twilight Zone” could best describe act two.  The particular one that comes to mind is titled “The Masks.”  Family members gather at the home of a wealthy family member whose dying. He demands the members to where masks he selected all night in order to obtain their inheritance.  They comply and when they are able to remove the mask, they realize that their face has contorted into the same shape as their mask.    As much as the first act reveals how stereotypes were used as a means of paving a way, the second act shows how stereotypes have become the main contributor to black culture and the road that was paved has lead black entertainers to a realm where minstrelsy is not only perpetuated but expected.

Waldean Nelson

Waldean Nelson

Mixing nostalgia with bitter truths, “Mr. Tol E RAncE” can brutal on the eyes and soul. The comedy and jiving lower our guards and lure us in, then without warning the rug is snatched from under your feet.  Suddenly, you realize the role you play in the perpetuation of today’s stereotypes.  As much as black entertainers wear a mask, we assist and often times insist on them wearing it.  Afterall, we are the ones that subscribe and purchase what these entertainers are peddling.  The penultimate section of act two contains two riveting solos by Waldean Nelson and Camille A. Brown, each struggling to break away from their masks.   The work ends with a dialogue between the dancers and the audience.  Explosive and extremely emotive this work barrels through the consciousness like a bullet shattering through panels of glass.  If works of art were required to be seen, this would be one of them.  It is the most telling piece of edutainment I have seen in a long time.  In short I could sum up “Mr. Tol E RAncE” in three syllables, tour de force.

CAMILLE A. BROWN AND DANCERSCamille A. Brown & Dancers performed “Mr. Tol E RAncE” at Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts on December 6 and 7.   Some may always think of December 7 as a day that will live in infamy.  I will view it as a day of awakening.  There is no way you can sit down to view “Mr. Tol E RAncE” and walk out the same.  When this work is performed again I urge everyone who reads F.A.M.E NYC to see this seminal dance piece and witness this masterpiece with your own eyes, mind and spirit.

Photos: Christopher, Grant Halverson

Macabre and Metaphysics Intertwine in Macbeth at Lincoln Center Theater

We are all familiar with the story of Macbeth, the Scottish warlord who would become king partly on the count of the Three Witches.  After a victorious battle, Macbeth encounters the Three Witches and upon doing so is told he will be king.  Macbeth and his wife then plot to murder Duncan, the current monarch.  Under the guise of merriment and despite Macbeth’s reservations, he and his wife welcome Duncan and his kinsmen into their home, get the king’s chamberlains drunk and assassinate the king.   Newly crowned, Macbeth descends from sovereign to psychopath murdering his loyal friend Banquo.  A second caucus with the Three Witches only heightens Macbeth’s paranoia and prompts him to have the family of Macduff, a fellow kinsman, murdered.  Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth, overcome with guilt, plummets into depression and begins to sleepwalk.  Eventually she commits suicide.  Macbeth is ultimately vanquished by Macduff and Duncan’s eldest son Malcolm becomes king.

MB4No matter the interpretation, the theme of the supernatural is constantly present in “Macbeth”.  You can’t get away from it, but what makes Shakespeare’s work so genius is that the interpretation of his plays depends on the road you take.  Director Jack O’Brien’s offering of “Macbeth” chooses to take the metaphysical path.   In this version, the Three Witches aren’t just a trio of wacky soothsayers convening around a cauldron. Oh no. These conniving necromancers morph into other characters on stage, thus taking on the personas of puppet masters ensuring their marionettes move their strings in the exact order they desire. The witches’ almost ubiquitous presence calls into question the subject of fate and action.  How much of Macbeth’s destiny relied on his own ambition or that of the Three Witches? Was Macbeth’s belief in the witches’ prediction responsible for all the events that followed? How responsible are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth for their actions if their actions were just pit stops along their destined path?  Jack O’Brien’s interpretation of this classic tragedy sets the mind ablaze with questions about the workings of the universe and the individual’s role in it to create good or evil. What I find most intriguing about this production is that O’Brien doesn’t attempt to supply the audience with answers, the answers you must discover for yourself.

The visuals of “Macbeth” only intensify the mystical happenings on stage.  From the moment the audience takes their seats and views the carved mandala, they become keenly aware of the conjuring set to take place.  And just like the actors, we are at the witches’ mercy, forced to watch two lovers plunge headlong into the abyss of destruction.  Along with the sacred symbol of the universe, the production is draped in the primary colors of black, white and blood red – hues that have meaning in the occult.  The lighting provides a stark perception of the actors making the tragic events more exaggerated and the imagery more daunting.  The costumes and sets courtesy of Catherine Zuber and Scott Pask produce a minimalist, sleek quality without dedicating itself to one particular time period.

MB3And what of the thespians who resurrect the bubbling and boiling characters full of toil and trouble? Color me impressed.  The vernacular of Shakespeare is a language we learn in high school and unless you take courses in it in college, there it stays. If not performed correctly, the rich wording of Shakespeare’s prose can come off like pubescent ramblings of students looking for a mid-term grade.  Some reincarnations of Shakespeare’s plays I have witnessed as of late have possessed this puerile quality.  Not so with this production.  Led by Ethan Hawke, the cast as a whole is more fair than foul.  I’ve viewed productions where actors performed Shakespeare as if they were competing for top prize in “Who Can Scream Loudest.”  Hawke’s Macbeth is a combination of shrewd underplaying offset by fierce outbursts of emotion.  He is the personification of a man slipping into darkness.  As Lady Macbeth, Anne-Marie Duff is sensational.  She embodies the grace of a queen and psyche of a sociopath. Together Hawke and Duff brilliantly represent one word…karma.  Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jennings portray the pied pipers of wizardry in this numinous production.  Although they look like rejects from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, the sorcerers don’t just play to win, they play for keeps.  The havoc they render adds the spice that makes this supernatural gumbo complete.  On a surprising note, I was pleased with Daniel Sunjata’s Macduff.  Though a bit heavy handed in his delivery at times, he proved to me that he is more than just a pretty face.   What I enjoyed most about the production was its fluidness.  It moved like a choreographed dance, constantly adding layers.

MBChristmas hovers in the air, tis the season to be jolly, but for Hawke and company tis the time to be wicked, the naughty reign supreme at The Vivian Beaumont Theater.  “Macbeth” has a limited run and ends on January 12.  Take a break from tidings of cheer and take a walk down the paranormal path.  Without a doubt, this production is worth seeing.

Photos: T. Charles Erickson

F.A.M.E NYC Remembers Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

When I first heard the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death I was shocked.  I felt my heart chambers deflate.  Of course I knew he was ill, but what I’ve learned from watching elderly family members battle sickness and slowly fade over to the other side is that you’re never really ready when the news comes.  At first I tried to face this news with a celebratory attitude.  Mandela was 95-years-old.  He had lived several lives in the almost century his soul was here on Earth.  He changed the lives and outlooks of many worldwide. If anyone deserved rest, it was him.  As a former Baptist, I was trained not to mourn death but to celebrate it. We sing. We shout.  “Our beloved is going home to be with our Heavenly Father and those who have gone before him.  He will always be with us –even until the end of time.” That is what my head reasoned.  It told me to clap my hands as I watched South Africans gather in front of Mandela’s home and sing, “Nelson Mandela ha hona ya tshwanang le ena.”  But my heart wouldn’t concur.  Tears fell over tears so fast that I couldn’t contain them.  I cried as if a member of my family had passed, although it really doesn’t matter that we didn’t share chromosomes…one of my family members did pass.

For anyone who craves freedom and justice for everyone, Madiba was our father.  I grew up watching the Black Liberation and African National Congress flags fly in my backyard.  My father told me about the struggles of the ANC and Nelson Mandela, who was still serving his prison sentence.  He told me how apartheid mirrored Jim Crow and how we must show our support, even if all we could do was show up at a rally to put pressure on the U.S. government and corporations to divest from South Africa.  It was Madiba’s imprisonment and incidents like Yusef Hawkins’ murder here in New York that forced me to write manifestos and place them on my high school bulletin board in an effort to create awareness among my classmates.  From prison Madiba’s spirit and the spirits of other freedom fighters led me to attend protests and marches against injustice wherever it showed its smug, intolerant face.

Madiba has brought me to tears before.  My parents and I had tears in our eyes as we watched him walk out of prison in 1990.  He was so vibrant; the feeling resonated through the television screen.  Within months he was in New York and we went to see him.  It didn’t matter that we were just faces and voices in the crowd, we were there.  Madiba brought me to tears when he was elected president of South Africa and he brought me to tears when he took the oath of office.

Today I realized why I had to cry when I heard the news of Mandela’s passing.  It brought me back to the day I realized my family, which at one point was too large to count, was shrinking.  All the individuals who strive to simply make the world a better place for all its citizens were leaving. “Our elders are transitioning…” I thought as I cried.  “Who would take their place?  Has the last few decades prepared anyone to take their place?” These answers will only come in time.

Social Media has provided a platform for anyone with brainwaves and internet access to comment about the life of Nelson Mandela, positive or negative.  But I will remember Madiba as a patriarch and the “troublemaker” that his name proclaimed him to be.  I will remember his unyielding spirit.  I will remember how he ascended above the lower emotions of hate and hostility to work towards a greater South Africa.  To me he was Gandhi, Spartacus and FDR rolled into one towering figure with a smile that beguiled the heart of anyone who saw it.

Madiba, I never met you in life, so I will take this opportunity to say thank you.  Thank you for giving the world you.  Thank you for being the type of troublemaker who wouldn’t hesitate to shake up and change an unjust system. Thank you for showing us what one person can do when they are armed with devotion, discipline and forgiveness.  Thank you showing us that even through our human frailties we can and should always allow our God-given light to shine.   And to the family of Nelson Mandela, thank you for allowing us to share him with all of you.

Nelson Mandela there is no one like you.  There will never be another like you. History and the world could never forget you. Go and take your place among the ancestors.  

Meagan Good Lends Her Voice to The Bible

Actress Meagan Good has displayed her beauty and talent in numerous films including Deliver Us from Eva, Stomp the Yard and Think Like a Man.  Recently she, along with other actors such as Cuba Gooding Jr., Patricia Heaton and Christopher Gorham and pastors such as Craig Groeschel , Erwin McManus , Jonathan Falwell and Miles McPherson, has participated in the latest audio production of the bible.  Directed by actress and director Chip Hurd (who also directed the 2006 audio adaptation) NIV Live: A Bible Experience features cinematic 3D enhanced sound and a musical score courtesy of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.  When asked about her involvement with NIV Live, Meagan responded, “As a little girl I’d known Chip and she’s just an incredible person and incredible mentor.  As this project came about she asked me if I would like to be a part of it and I was like of course I would.”

The bible is one of the most read works in the human history with several adaptations published.  The creative team behind NIV Live: A Bible Experience also produced the first audio version of the bible in 2006.  The passages Meagan and the other cast members read were assigned to them.  In this version she portrays Eve, mother of all mankind, but as for her personal favorite passage the 32-year-old actress stated, “My personal favorite is always going to be Proverbs 31 because that is who I aspire to be every day. I put my best foot forward to try to be that woman.” NIV Live: A Bible Experience can be purchased as a 79-disc CD set with a bonus DVD featuring the making of NIV Live, a downloadable digital version with multi-platform access or a mobile app with price points ranging from $19.99 to $62.50.  If you want to see and hear Meagan, you won’t have to wait long; she is co-starring in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is set to be released on December 18.  In 2014, she will be reprising the role of Mya in Think Like a Man Too.  And yes FAMERS, I tried to get some scoop for you, but all Meagan would say was, “I will say…that someone gets married.  That’s all I can say or else Will Packer [producer of the Think Like a Man films] will have my head on a platter.”  And none of us wants that.