The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was closing a very short run here in Boston, only four performances at the Boch Center Wang Theater from April 28-May 1 when my wife Madeleine and I sat together on aisle seats, row L for the Sunday matinee.
It was a gorgeously warm and sunny spring day as we walked down Tremont Street from the Park Street Red Line stop, savoring views of Boston Common budding into a feast of green as troops of students were passing us by in gossamer spring dresses with gossamer youth gaiety.
It was no sacrifice at all to enter the indoor spaces of a theater since we’d already had a very pleasant walk and Alvin Ailey Dance is always a rare, complex pleasure.
They always have so many layered artistic impressions that they always make it seem, to this writer, as though he’d have to have a suite of hands all typing at once to articulate his thoughts.
Fortunately, my unconscious came to my aid as I pillowed down to awaken with two organizing rubrics in my sleepy head: One was an old song title: “Doing the Herky Jerky.” And the other, the title of a rather gruesome children’s game: “We All Fall Down Dead.”
What put the first title in my head was a style of dance, at once gracious and staccato, the feet of the dancers taking small precise steps, then retracting their feet from those footprints as though the boards of the stage were as hot as the stage lights. As the song goes: “You put your left foot in; you take your left foot out. Doing the Herky Jerky is what it’s all about…”
Make no mistake, though, that these dancers looked anything like me and my friends as we danced the steps of the song: on stage, their agility, their cat-like quickness left “jerkiness” far behind; their feet just seem to vanish with the merest hint of a jerk.
It was mesmerizing. Sitting us up straight as we looked for the transition which, against physics, swallowed up the intervening time between multiple steps.
Then we looked for hints of motion in the hips, the chest, the angle of the head, and again found the only barest hints that prodded us to wonder how, besides endless practice, their bodies could so move as quickly as their dancer’s wills.
Then the “how?” turned to the even more intriguing question: “Why?”
Fortunately, a speaking style, of dance, of rhetoric of anything, speaks through multiple parts.
The next part of the esthetic of Alvin Ailey Dancers moved from the feet to whole limbs which often jittered from finger-tips to shoulders, from toes to head as if experiencing panic or ecstasy so complete it ran along the outsides of their bodies, only to return inside to its source: the outside was the sauce; the inside the spring, so to speak.
What capped off this speaking style for me was a common trope of returning to the floor of the stage as if drawing strength from the ‘earth’ of the boards.
Dancers who could stay aloft for moments, bird-like, often completed a connected series of flight moves unaccountably on their backs or sides in a position that for moments looked so very helpless that their next move — springing to their feet seemingly without the aid of arms or legs — looked like a miracle.
I credit this extraordinary style of dance, so eloquent of the Black experience in America of survival by cat-like quickness, hard physical work, and, above all — no pun intended — rebounding with re-doubled energy from each time their life-force is kicked to the floor below, to the artistry of choreographer Robert Battle, who was groomed for and inherited this mantle from Alvin Ailey himself.
Mr. Battle is a choreographer for this new century non-plus ultra. We await his coming to Boston with his dance troupe again.
(The next Celebrity Series of Boston presentations is “Let’s Dance Boston!” from May 11 through 15 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. For details on this event, upcoming performances and the recently-announced 2022/23 schedule and ticket packages, visit celebrityseries.org.)