From its opening, thudding heartbeat, to its uplifting and climactic ending, “Lazarus,” the new two-act ballet performed on Feb. 8 by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. was a fitting tribute to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary as one of the top dance companies in the world.
Created by Philadelphia-based hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, and commissioned as a tribute to the company’s founder, Alvin Ailey, “Lazarus” is a stunning commentary on the Black experience in America, with its despair, hope and the weight of living and dying.
With a score by Darrin Ross that incorporates spoken word, Harris connects the past and present by addressing the racial inequities that America faced when Ailey founded the company in 1958 and which still exist today.
The work also is a statement on the company’s ability to survive long after Ailey’s 1989 death, successfully flourishing with new works that continually resurrect Ailey’s original vision. In addition to Lazarus’ D.C. premiere, the Company is premiering “Kairos” by Wayne McGregor and “The Call” by Ronald K. Brown.
Ailey was born in Texas, and Act 1 seemed to depict the Deep South where African Americans eked out a living in a harsh and often unforgiving world. Surreal images ranged from dancers raised on their toes with cocked necks, suggesting lynchings, to women and men being dragged lifelessly off stage.
A man seemed to be marked for death, and all around, the sounds of screams and gunshots pierced the air as sirens wailed ominously and police dogs barked and growled. The dancers’ steps were agitated and frantic, and the bent backs and hunched over shoulders added to the grim and stark scenario.
On a soundtrack, the voices of Ailey and Harris could be heard speaking at times, while Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Michael Kiwanuka’s “Black Man in a White World” subtly weaved in and out.
The dancers wore work clothes, including overalls, that suggested farm hands, and laborers.
In Act II, Harris shifted the mood, evoking hope and salvation, and the dancers took on more hip-hop dance moves dressed in colorful tunics and tank tops. The complex steps were joyous and thrilling to watch, with the suggestion that Lazarus had been raised from the dead.
The opening night gala and fundraiser raised $1.1 million for the company’s coffers, and ”Revelations,” Ailey’s signature work, ended the evening, garnering thunderous applause from the enthusiastic audience. The gospel-themed piece has long been an audience favorite, with songs that include “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “Wade in the Water,” and the infectious “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
Dancers Jacqueline and Jamar Roberts were paired in “Fix Me, Jesus,” and their dancing was both regal and beautifully executed, in a number that calls for demanding body strength. Jeroboam Bozeman, Michael Francis McBride, and Christopher Wilson leaped and flew across the stage with ease in the fast-paced “Sinner Man,” while the Company’s rendering of “The Day is Past and Gone,” was flawless and seamless.
The Company’s rendering of “Rocka My Soul” literally rocked the Opera House hall, garnering four curtain calls. It was a stellar ending to an evening in which founder Alvin Ailey, born poor, but who is credited with popularizing modern dance, would have been proud. The Company performs through Sunday, Feb. 10th. For tickets, visit Kennedycenter.org.