WASHINGTON – The most unusual part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center had nothing to do with the dancers onstage.
It had to do with the audience.
Dance performances, particularly modern and experimental ones, can sometimes be inaccessible for those who watch them. But Alvin Ailey succeeded where many dance companies have failed: they engaged the audience in a performance that was meaningful, innovative and technically difficult.
The company is already a powerhouse in the world of American dance, having performed in 48 states and 71 countries. It grew out of a group of African- American modern dancers led by Alvin Ailey who performed in New York City in March 1958, according to a news release from the Kennedy Center, and has participated in two historic residencies in South Africa.
The Alvin Ailey company incorporates a variety of dance styles and influences into its performances. The dancers performed three pieces on Sunday afternoon, including “River,” “Four Corners,” and “Revelations,” one of the company’s best- known works.
Each piece featured a mixture of graceful ballet-based movements, saucy hip swivels and pushes, and strong, sudden motions.
The effect was mesmerizing. In the first piece, the flexibility and athleticism of one female dancer, in particular, elicited an audible murmur of appreciation from the audience.
In the second, a strong musical beat had people nodding their heads along with the performance. The dancers received a standing ovation before the third piece had even begun.
Intentional theatrical choices that showed a distinct artistic vision accented the dancers’ strong, flowing movements onstage. Every motion, light, mood, beat and color seemed integral to the performance.
Two intermissions between the three pieces gave each one the artistic space it needed to exist independently of the rest of the performance. Props such as fans, stools and long strips of fabric in “Revelations” added flair. Interactions between dancers ranged from flirty, to sensual, to wistful.
Ultimately, the performance transcended mere entertainment and performance to approach true art. It tapped into a part of the human experience that feeds the soul, something deeper that allowed the audience to escape themselves briefly and enter into a world of passion and irresistible longing.
The life that the company brought to the stage lifted audience members to their feet again at the end of the show — a response that indicates just how deep the connection was between the dancers and the audience, and how unforgettable the performance was.