Even the earliest work in Alvin Ailey’s programs feels contemporary

Alvin Ailey founded his American Dance Theater in 1958, and for the past half-century the company has been an almost annual fixture in Boston. The COVID pandemic has prevented tours in 2020 and 2021, but this weekend Ailey is back live at her usual venue, the Boch Center Wang Theater, for five performances. The three programs include one from “Ailey Classics” and one honoring Robert Battle’s 10th anniversary as artistic director. But Thursday’s opening program, titled “Contemporary Creations,” brought us resident choreographer Jamar Roberts’ “Holding Space,” Battle’s “Mass” (a late replacement for Aszure Barton’s “BUSK”) and the work Ailey’s flagship, the “Revelations” of 1960, which will close every program.

“Holding Space” was created last year and released on film before being transferred to the stage. The title of the piece might suggest that the 13 dancers are holding in place due to COVID, or holding on to each other, or even that they are all being held in one space.

We first see them in rows, each in its own little square, as if they were standing 2 meters apart. Shrouded in mist, they are silhouettes against Brandon Stirling Baker’s industrial bank of light, and over Tim Hecker’s equally industrial score they spin wildly, individually, as if ignoring anyone else. After a few minutes, they exit the grid and begin to interact while maintaining personal space. A large open cube constructed of metal pipes emerges at the back of the stage and becomes another type of space of restraint, that of the solos which dance on the agony of isolation. After exiting the cube, the final section of “Holding Space” finds everyone moving in some semblance of pattern, then in canon, and finally in unison before leaving.

Battle created “Mass” for a program at the Juilliard School in 2004, then revived it for Ailey in 2017; the company performed the piece here in 2018. Battle’s inspiration, he says, was the choir during a performance of Verdi’s Requiem which he attended, although one can also detect the influence of the choirs churches in which he used to sing. Their dresses illuminated by Burke Wilmore in red, orange and yellow, the 15 dancers are a mass of energy, of flickering light. This “mass” is also a kind of ritual; some dresses have crosses, circles, arm bands.

Alvin Ailey performed resident choreographer Jamar Roberts’ “Holding Space” on Thursday night.Robert Torres

Where “Holding Space” is about taking space, “Mass” is about receiving it. Light bathes the dancers from above, as if the Holy Spirit were about to descend. To John Mackey’s percussion score, they move arms crossed in front of them, an organism of electrifying and imaginative parts. Battle’s choreography draws inspiration from Ailey’s signature poses as well as Vaslav Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in its up and down jumps and hops. Jermaine Terry, in the reddest robe with the biggest cross, begins to part, as if he were the Chosen One, but he doesn’t dance himself to death; The “mass” ends with a rush towards primordial and communal ecstasy.

One might wonder what a 1960 work does on a bill titled ‘Contemporary Creations’, but it’s precisely because Ailey’s choreography feels so contemporary that ‘Revelations’ continues to captivate audiences 60 years later. . Ailey’s is a story of deliverance through dance: When Jacqueline Green rises in majestic arabesque on the knees of Michael Jackson Jr. at the end of their duet ‘Fix Me, Jesus’, you cannot imagine what could need to be repaired. Clifton Brown in “I Wanna Be Ready” is definitely ready, a controlled slow-motion study; in “Sinner Man”, Christopher Taylor, Christopher R. Wilson and Chalvar Monteiro earn absolution through acrobatics. And though the conclusion “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” became an audience applause, it’s a staple that never ceases to sound spontaneous.


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At the Boch Center Wang Theater on April 28. Rehearsal from April 29 to May 1. Tickets: $29 to $95. 800-982-2787, www.celebrityseries.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at [email protected]

Jeffrey Gantz can be contacted at [email protected]

Maria D. Ervin