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

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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 AND DANCERS

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

MONTE/MULLER Made New York Live Arts Move

From June 20-22, Monte/Muller Move! played at New York Live Arts.  Monte/Muller Move! combined five works from choreographers Jennifer Muller and Elisa Monte and showcased the power and majesty of these two dance companies.

The first performance was the world premiere of Grass by Jennifer Muller.  Inspired by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and featuring cellist Julia Kent, whose haunting solo truly captured the spirit of the ballet.  As people trample daily on a grassy knoll or a sector of a park, do did these dancers slide and thrust their bodies onto the blades of the astro turf stage.  Colliding, then separating again, emoting the thread of impermanence.

ELISA_MONTE_FULL-180The second, Unstable, premiered in 2012. Choreographed by Elise Monte, Unstable was a primal ritual with bodies rolling on the stage.  Slow and sensational, the imagery of the wall shadows created added another dimension.

Elise Monte’s Shattered premiered in 2000 and is a fast paced spectacle for the eye. Like lightning when it strikes the impact hits with a precision that only a force of nature can.  Explosive, this piece pumps with high-octane adrenaline.

Premeiring in 1996, Volkmann Suite was choreographed by Elise Monte and is a stunning display of beauty and strength.  The power lifts displayed throughout the piece complimented the dancers carved frames and reminded me of moving sculptures.

The last performance was also by Jennifer Muller and featured excerpts of the ballet Speed, which debuted in 1974.  Filled with fast changes, the piece was considered a tour de force when it first premiered.  MONTE/MULLER MOVE! at New York Live Arts was made possible through New York Live Arts’ Theater Access Program, a comprehensive subsidized rental program benefiting a diverse group of dance and theater companies and producing organizations.

Photos courtesy of Krizer Graber Communications, LLC

 

 

Dance New Amsterdam Files For Chapter 11

On May 27, Dance New Amsterdam Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.   The announcement allows DNA to continue its daily operations.   Executive and Artistic Director Catherine A. Peila has already initiated a five-year recovery plan which has reduced general operating and programming expenses from $3.6 million to $2.3 million annually.  “DNA’s executive team, faculty, and board of directors have worked diligently over the past five years to create strong programs and a business structure that supports DNA’s mission. These efforts, combined with the support of cultural leaders, have put us on the road to recovery,” says Peila. “The decision to file for Chapter 11 reorganization protection provides us with the time to solidify agreements with new partners, increase funding and most importantly, continue to serve the New York City’s vibrant community of performing artists and avid cultural supporters.”

Located in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Ground Zero and the Freedom Tower, DNA is considered the foremost progressive dance education and performance center.  Founded in 1984, DNA provides a community hub for dance training choreographic exploration and innovative performance, developing new audiences and bridging communities. It’s a breeding ground and safe haven for aspiring, emerging and established artist, including daily classes, certification courses, commissions and artistic residencies, along with studio and administrative office subsidies.  DNA employs over 250 professional faculty members and over 650 artists through commissioned and produced work. The organization serves more than 30,000 students and performers, over 700 dance companies and performing arts groups – offering thousands of audience members access to visual and performing arts through their 130-seat theater, six art studios, gallery and artist administration space.  To learn more about DNA and supporting its programs through charitable donations, visit www.dnadance.org.

NYC Gets Ready To Dance

May in New York City brings lots of tequila on Cinco de Mayo, tons of sailors during Fleet Week and plenty of parties to mark the unofficial start of summer over Memorial Day weekend.  For the past five years, May in Gotham also sends New Yorkers dancing in the street with Dance Parade New York.  If you missed the festivities that occurred on Saturday, May 21, there is still an opportunity to get your dance on in June.   The seventh season of National Dance Week – NYC begins June 15 with a kick-off event featuring choreographer Michelle Robinson leading a routine of more than 20 dancers at Union Square.  National Dance Week – NYC is an annual 10-day festival that enlists the support of well known dance studios and fitness centers throughout New York City in an effort to commemorate the beauty and variety of dance and offers free dance, fitness and wellness classes. 

Participating studios include The Ailey Extension; American Tap Dance Foundation, Astoria Fine Arts Dance, Ballet Basics, Bridge for Dance: Brooklyn Ballet, Covenant Ballet Theatre of Brooklyn, Dance Manhattan, Dance New Amsterdam, Dhoonya Dance, Dokoudovsky New York Conservatory of Dance, Fit, Fab and Sexy, Fit, Fab, Teens, Flamenco con Magdalena, Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, Fred Astaire (West Side), The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, Joffrey Ballet School, Kat Wildish at The Ailey Extension, LA Dance, Mark Morris Dance Center, Marie-Christine Giordano Dance, Nika Ballet Studio, Peridance Capezio Center, Pushing Progress, The Queens Dance Project, Sandra Cameron Dance Center, STREB Extreme Action, Tropical Image NY and Yoga Works (Downtown).  To view the lists and schedules of studios, offerings and instructions, click on NDW-NYC’s website at www.ndw-nyc.org/free-classes.

The festival ends on June 26 with a special performance from Jacob Clemente who plays the lead role of Billy Elliot on Broadway. I suggest all New Yorkers put their dancing shoes on and get to stepping.  National Dance Week – NYC is a great way to experience the eclecticism of NYC’s dance scene.

Just in case you missed last month’s dance parade, check out the slideshow.

Slideshow:  Ronnie Ginnever, Brian Lin, Leonard Rosemarin and Jessica E. Stack