The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated its 60th year as a leading American and world company during its annual Celebrity Series of Boston appearance from May 2 though 5 at the Boch Center Wang Theatre.
This year, acclaimed choreographer Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus,” composed in 2018, was featured on Friday evening. “Lazarus” is based on the biblical story in the gospel of John of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from a tomb where he had lain dead for four days. Fact or legend, this dramatic spectacle has been celebrated in Western culture by superstar painters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt as well as countless icon paintings from the Eastern regions of the Roman empire.
Harris is a choreographer raised in an inner-city community on the North Side of Philadelphia. His rise to his present status in the dance world is itself a miracle of an artistic talent blossoming in the hard-scrabble culture of a repressed minority largely cut off from the rich economic and educational currents of 20th century America.
Harris’ rise is both the usual and a miraculous story of an underdog making capital of his limitations. In this case, Harris took the rebellious dance of hip-hop, mostly solo and in-your-face, and, while keeping its diabolic thrust and energy expanded its reach from the individual to a dance company.
The thrust of hip-hop is still very present, but entwined like green ivy is an individual and communal trust. Intricately composed group dancing inevitably pulls spinning, whirling almost-out-of-control solos back to the nurturing embrace of intricate footwork and elastic tensions: both a relief and renewal.
The original music composed by Darrin Ross is similarly harsh and tender, off-putting and in-gathering. Labored breathing to electronic dissonance suddenly erupts into a popular song such as the melodious “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone. Another balm amidst the thorns is “Glory, Glory” performed by Odetta.
The lighting is likewise not just a spotlighting of individual survival but sudden expansions to a soft over-all glow in the darkness of repression, a glow which relieves the solo individual while enriching a close group of individuals.
Everywhere in Harris’ choreography, in the music, lighting and costumes, is the challenge of keeping oneself both visible as an individual, in the light, while able to support and be supported by others also hopeful to survive and thrive. It is that “also” which offsets the striving “me.”
Lazarus would be proud to see his example so well and beautifully followed from near death to new life.
Fittingly this new dance, just birthed last year by the inaugural artist-in residence, is followed by “Revelations,” a 1960s masterwork by Ailey himself.
“Revelations” is, to this reviewer, much less gritty than “Lazarus,” much less a jagged falling-down and picking-yourself-up odyssey than Rennie Harris’s contemporary piece.
Lyrical, colorful and graceful, “Revelations” evokes an aspirational hymn to possibility. The dream of a choreographer who has arrived on stage with an announcement of future hopes; whereas Rennie Harris tells the bumps and bruises, loss and attainment of a juggling path to those hopes — by no means over.
All in all, an evening full of weighty narrative interwoven with rapier thrusts of commentary united in dance and music.
(Tickets for the 2019-2020 Celebrity Series of Boston season are now on sale at celebrityseries.org.)