The next few days offer the most loaded roster of dance shows in recent memory, as two acclaimed New York-based companies tour to Seattle, and a locally based choreographer/filmmaker duo premieres their new work.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater @ The Paramount
An iconic company brings works old and new
Saturday & Sunday
With something as subjective as dance, it’d be hard to pin down an honorific like the country’s greatest dance company. But the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater surely makes a run for it. The prolific New York-based, world-touring company stays both fresh and firmly rooted in its 64-year history, as fluent in explosive, shorter new works as it is in the iconic epics choreographed by the company’s namesake founder.
The Ailey company’s combination precision, fluidity, and rhythm has inspired countless others, but it’s tough to do well. For Seattle audiences, the choreography of Donald Byrd, Artistic Director since 2002 of Spectrum Dance Theater, likely best channels that rare combination and energy here. (Byrd, who’s been called an Ailey protégé, has five commissions for the Ailey company; the 2019 Greenwood is his most recent.)
Ailey’s most famous and oft-performed work, the epic Revelations, calls upon biblical references in both celebration and mourning. Widely thought to depict Black Americans while enslaved, the company itself denotes its inspirations as much broader: the “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful” Black cultural heritage, “one of America’s richest treasures.” Revelations, in turn, has become one of America’s richest cultural treasures; and, per the Ailey company, it’s “the most widely-seen modern dance work in the world.”
Revelations will close out each slate in the company’s three Seattle performances this weekend. The Saturday night show (March 26) features Ailey’s choreography, including the epic Blues Suite and excerpts from The River. The Saturday and Sunday matinees, in contrast, will feature shorter, contemporary works, choreographed by Artistic Director Robert Battle.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs 3/26-27 at The Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $52+, here.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company @ Meany Center
A New York choreographer seeks community in Seattle
I am making this work to satisfy my artistic desires … but behind it I’m also trying to make a work that might be like in the Black church, when somebody stands up and says, “Yes! I have a problem!” They say it to the community. “I am weak! I wanna be strong!” And somebody in the community says. “Amen! I hear you! I hear you!”
That was choreographer Bill T. Jones — “[a]rguably the most written-about figure in the dance world of the last quarter century” — discussing his then-new work about a Holocaust survivor, as quoted in the NY Times Style Magazine in 2016. And yet it sounds an awful lot like his current work, which is about feeling isolation amongst community and is called, much like a response to the above, What Problem?
Jones has performed the work before, but each time is designed to be different. When touring, he takes up something of an artistic residence, meeting with community members in the performance city, then incorporating those discussions — their visions of community — into his work. (This iteration included development with attendees in conversation at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, and will incorporate local cast members into a segment of the performances.)
Central to the work, and consistent across cities, is spoken text from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Composer and vocalist Nick Hallett provides a multilayered score.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company: What Problem? performs 3/24-26 at Meany Center for the Performing Arts in Seattle (UW main campus). Tickets are $64-$76, here.
EL SUEÑO film premiere @ Northwest Film Forum
Seattle-based artists look to their ancestors for the future
Really pull out of that —
Refuse to be taken down.
These instructions from EL SUEÑO company founder and choreographer Alicia Mullikin, given to young dancers in a class segment filmed by PBS and aired in 2018, could as easily be read as instructions to herself.
A back-and-forth fight, one that culminates in liberation, is what it feels like to watch Mullikin dance her own choreography, with forces pulling and ripping, breaking away. Her steps, both those she dances and those she choreographs on others, also possess a certain chip on their shoulder. They say I’m the boss on this stage. And while Mullikin might refrain from putting it exactly like that (or not), earning that respect at center-stage is a position she’s had to fight to get. In a dance world dominated by certain looks and figures, Mullikin rejects a mold of modern dancer that’s White, wealthy, skinny, and lithe.
It’s also a lot more fun to watch. Her moves are paired in combinations not often seen. Expressive and explosive. Forceful steps that flow in fluidity. Steeped in culture but firmly modern. Familial and individual.
Watching Mullikin’s pandemic-era short film La Primera Reina, created in the hills of the San Bernardino National Forest near where she grew up (“it feels like a sacred space for me”), I can’t help but think about connectivity: to the land, to legacy (for better or worse), to the journeys of prior generations. Much of that film centers on her now-100-year-old grandma, Enriqueta Maldonado, who appears royal and radiant, perched on her throne in a golden crown.
Just as Mullikin owns her position center-stage, on film she’s owning her place in those hills with the same style of movement. And here too is a position that feels hard-won; rolling in the dust of the ground, pulling, breaking free with a grand swoop of a braid. Her nobility of movement smacks of liberation, not mere ascension.
Her new film builds upon these previous works. “It feels like a constant within my work to explore and discover myself as I simultaneously honor my ancestors,” she explains. EL SUEÑO, which means “the dream,” thus operates not as a sequel but a continued exploration. “That dream for my family in crossing our southern border, was for their children to have a better life. As a first generation American, that dream extends through me and my work as an educator and artist. … EL SUEÑO explores what it means to be a powerful brown woman — to hold multitudes of pain and joy within one body, and to use those experiences to be the narrator and illustrators of our own stories.”
In contrast to earlier works, Mullikin does not appear in EL SUEÑO. Instead, she directed and choreographed dancers Devin Muñoz (also the filmmaker), Olivia Anderson, Tessa Bañales, Aachix̂Qağaduug Elise Beers, Melanie Katzen, and Elizabeth Sugawara. And rather than focus overtly on one ancestor, EL SUEÑO looks to “female archetypes — mother, grandmother, queen, and warrior” — and reframes them “as traits that are passed down through generations.” So while it remains deeply personal, it arrives with a broader mandate. “My hope is that by allowing brown women a place to tell their own stories and histories, we can combat cultural erasure, and provide much-needed inclusion and representation for the next generation.”
Each night’s screening of the 36-minute film is followed by an after-party included with the screening ticket, featuring art installations, discussion with the film’s creators, music, margaritas, and sangria. Given the creators’ broad vision, it’s fitting that the screening also arrives with a wider array of events: an installation on display at the UW’s Henry Art Gallery through April 17; and a healing event on April 9, also at the Henry (limited spaces remain, register ahead here).
EL SUEÑO film premiere (presented with Velocity Dance Center) runs 3/25-27 at Northwest Film Forum and the NOD Theater in Seattle (Capitol Hill). Tickets are $10-$36 (sliding scale available to all), here.
View shows by day on the Performance Calendar here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.