By CB Adams  

When Dance St. Louis presented Ailey II on March 1-2 at The Touhill Performing Arts Center, it did more than provide a stage for the second company of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It created an Event.

It is important to remember that Dance St. Louis is one of the country’s oldest, and one of only four, non-profit dance-only presenters – so presenting Ailey II is the type of dance concert you would expect from an organization with this type of mission. And the Ailey II performance alone would have been more than worth the price of a ticket.

Yet, the experience was augmented with the type of pre-show program that I wish were offered at all cultural events. Rather than dash from the parking lot to my seat, there is much to be said for easing into a more relaxed, inspiring, receptive state of mind. I enjoy walking looking at the art in The Sheldon’s galleries and listening to the short lecture before performances at Union Avenue Opera, for instance.

Dance St. Louis is known for its pre-show “Speaking of Dance.” For Ailey II, Dance St. Louis artistic director Michael Uthoff provided the Q and Francesca Harper, artistic director of Ailey II, responded with the A.

She provided entertaining, anecdote-laced stories about the company, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year as a vital link between student aspirations and professional realities. Under Harper’s leadership the company maintains its commitment to fostering emerging talent while demanding rigorous dedication.

Revelations. Photo by Nir Arieli

Adding to the festival feel of the Ailey II performance was a student art exhibit with interesting and impressive works by students from Grand Center Arts Academy and Central Visual & Performing Arts High School. As a visual artist myself, I enjoyed seeing what the new generation of creators can do. The level of confidence and skills of the young artists was enviable.

In the half hour or so before the Ailey II dancers took the stage, as if to prime the audience, The Phil Woodmore Singers, with 27 singers, filled the lobby with a sometimes thunderous performance of jazz, gospel and spirituals.

Now, that’s what I call an Event – engaging, thought-provoking, inspiring, all with a bunch of like-minded folks. I normally eschew commenting on audiences, but this one was noteworthy. Maybe it was the undiminished vitality of the Ailey “brand.”

Maybe it was the impressive list of supporting civic, cultural and faith organizations that were thanked before the performance. Or maybe it was the anticipation for full experience of the Event. Whatever the reason, if there were any empty seats, I didn’t see them at the March 2 performance.

The evening began with “Luminous” (2023), choregraphed by Harper and danced by the company. As she explained during the pre-show interview, “Luminous” explores the company’s rich five-decade journey and is inspired by the cherished memories of Ailey II’s esteemed alumni and their commitment to innovation and social advocacy.

The work fosters a communal spirit among the dancers reminiscent of Alvin Ailey’s ethos. Through intimate conversations with past luminaries like Matthew Rushing and Sylvia Waters, Harper crafted a narrative that resonates with the current generation, enriching their understanding of the company’s legacy.

Championing Ailey II’s archival efforts, Harper underscores the importance of documenting Black narratives in dance history. “Luminous” beautifully honors its past and propels the company forward with continued excellence and opportunities for emerging talent.

Maya Finman-Parker in Judith Jamison’s “Divining.” Photo by Nir Arieli.

Next was choreographer Judith Jamison’s “Divining” (excerpt), spellbindingly danced by Maggy van den Heuvel. Her interpretation beautifully captured the essence of sky, flight, bow and ripple – all set against a backdrop of diverse rhythms from North African, Central African and Latin influences, “Divining” pulsated with a vibrant energy that was captivating and evocative.

Van den Heuvel’s commanding presence on stage and her flawless execution of Jamison’s choreography showcased her exceptional talent and brought a fresh perspective to this piece with its mysterious undertones suggesting a quest or search.

Also from 2023 was “John 4:20” with choreography by Baye & Asa, a company creating movement art projects directed by Amadi “Baye” Washington & Sam “Asa” Pratt. “John 4:20” is an interpretation of that passage from the Bible.

In this performance, the dance piece traditional boundaries to explore themes of shared history and divergent identities. Six dancers masterfully blended elements of hip hop, African, and contemporary modern styles, crafting a choreographic narrative that pulsed with intensity and intimacy.

Through a series of duets and group interactions, the dancers navigated the spectrum of human emotion, from the bustling streets to the intimate playground, deftly confronting the realities of violence while emphasizing the transformative potential of empathy.

“John 4:20” was perhaps my favorite piece of the evening, if only because it was new to me and so deftly performed with such athleticism and precision, engaging me with a visceral journey through love, hate, resilience and vulnerability.

Revelations. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Concluding the performance was Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” (1960), the most iconic piece of the evening. Ailey II’s rendition of “Revelations” continues to solidify its historical significance, marking 60 years of continuous – and well deserved –  performance. As one of the most renowned American concert dances of all time, the dancers of Ailey II provided a performance that resonated deeply, its images and choreography leaving an indelible impression.

“Revelations” is more than just a dance; it’s a tapestry of voices, echoing the emotions and motivations of African American religious music. Langston Hughes aptly described it as an exploration of these rich traditions. Rooted in the rituals of Black South culture, the work serves as a cultural-political touchstone, offering a sense of shared history and collective identity.

As with other performances of “Revelations” I have attended over the years, dating all the way back to my college days, this one also felt like a spiritual experience, sweeping me up in the music and movement that affirmed the distinctiveness of its cultural expressions.

From the soulful rendition of “Fix Me, Jesus” by Maya Finman-Palmer and Corinth Moulterie to the electrifying energy of “Sinner Man” performed by Xhosa Scott, Moulterie and Alfred L. Jordan II, the dancers breathed renewed life into Ailey’s masterpiece.

“Revelations” ends with the song “Rocka My Soul In the Bosom of Abraham,” which always brings a pleasant childhood memory to light for me. The full company was on stage for this piece, and they left me (and the rest of the audience) with a feeling akin to going to church, where the spirit of the dance uplifts and inspires all who witness it. Ailey II’s performance did this classic – and all the rest of the pieces – proud.

Comprising a dozen dancers on two-year terms, Ailey II’s schedule of classes, rehearsals, and extensive tours offers a challenging immersion into the world of professional dance. Stemming from Alvin Ailey’s vision of a training ground for young artists, Ailey II continues its educational mission while serving as a breeding ground for future main company members.

Despite enduring hardships and tragedies over the years, Ailey II remains a cornerstone of the dance community, evidenced by its ongoing 50th-anniversary tour.

As the company celebrates this milestone, its enduring legacy underscores the transformative power of dance and the resilience of artistic dedication, and Dance St. Louis deserves thanks for bring it to town, along with all the pre-show festivities. Dance St. Louis presented Ailey II on March 1-2 at The Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Francesca Harper’s Luminous. Photo by Nir Arieli.
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