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

Harlem’s Hey Day Lives Vicariously through Cotton Club Parade

As a child I learned not to fool with the art of resurrection.  It is an act that should only be performed by the gods. Tinker with it, and you guarantee folly – The Exorcist taught me that –but when music is involved, you can almost ensure success.  And when a musical titan the likes of Wynton Marsalis is overseeing the music, you know it will be a masterpiece.  Such can be said about Cotton Club Parade; it revitalizes the era of The Harlem Renaissance with toe-tapping pleasure, pizzazz and the elegance of Ellington.

Imagine getting on the A train and instead of it taking you to the Harlem of today, it transports you back to a Harlem that buzzed with intellectuals such as W.E.B Dubois and Paul Robeson, luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes and at night sizzled from the red hot jazz of Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Sir Duke.  Well hep cats, I’m here to tell you that time machine is Cotton Club Parade.

Cotton Club Parade ignites a spark that captivates the audience for 90-minutes without ever diminishing its flame.   For jazz lovers, the musical revue reintroduces the music and arrangements of Duke Ellington, and for audience members not familiar with music of The Cotton Club the show acquaints them with a vivacious, harmonious time in American music and pop culture that has long rested in the shadows of the  “15-minute” sensationalized society we have become accustomed to.  And in an effort to recognize the art of a more modern era, Cotton Club Parade infuses urban dance techniques like the moonwalk, made famous by Michael Jackson and is a staple in hip hop dancing.  But what I found most interesting about the connection explored in the dancing is how art and pop culture is a constant evolution of itself.  Cab Calloway did early variations of the moonwalk in the 1930s. 

Along with the modern dance elements, the choreography of Warren Carlyle was spot-on.  I haven’t seen such spectacular live hoofing in ages!  The Nicholas Brothers and Josephine Baker would’ve been proud.  The ensemble and Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars work like a well-oiled machine – no cracks in this production – no sir.  It is a buffet for the eyes and ears.  Audience members feast on selected texts from poet Langston Hughes and wonderful renditions of classics like “Diga Diga Doo”, “Ill Wind”, “Stormy Weather”, “I’ve Got The World on a String”, “Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Creole Love Call” courtesy of Glee’s Amber Riley, Joshua Henry, Carmen Ruby Floyd and others.

Last year Cotton Club Parade played at New York City Center, and Encores! jumped at the opportunity to showcase the production again this year.  And why wouldn’t they?   It is a wonderful awakening of The Harlem Renaissance and the artisans that made it such a significant movement in American history.  The show played its last performance at the City Center on the 18th, but it is my sincere hope that this production will play other famous theaters in NYC such as the Apollo and Lincoln Center and will tour nationwide so others can marvel at the brilliance of this show the way I did.

Photos:  Broadway