Ailey Looks Back to Black Joy and Longing With 1930s Jazz

The dancers don’t so much step onto the stage in Amy Hall Garner’s “Century” as burst within it like a glitter bomb, showering the space in pink and gold. For “Century,” her first work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performed on Friday at New York City Center, it’s clear that Garner doesn’t merely know a party when she sees one — she knows how to dream one up. A metallic curtain hangs in the back as dancers, looking like fuchsia flowers, vibrate from their shoulders to their feet like petals caught in a breeze.

Wearing dresses featuring feathered skirts and striped bustiers and, for the men, tight pants and short-sleeve shirts so form fitting that they could be painted on, the dancers are clearly committed to a celebration. But Garner adds another element to their flash: breathtaking speed.

A rising choreographer who will present a new work at New York City Ballet this spring, Garner, here, takes inspiration from her family. She regards “Century” as an early birthday present to her grandfather Henry Spooner — he turns 100 on Dec. 30 — and has built a score for it based on his taste, which includes songs by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans. One section ends with a voice-over by Spooner that speaks to his longevity: “Why my life was extended I don’t know and I don’t question it. Something must be doing good, I’m still here.”

The dancers in “Century” are like petals caught in a breeze. From left, Christopher Taylor, Ashley Kaylynn Green, Chalvar Monteiro, Dolphin and Michael Jackson Jr.Credit…Paul Kolnik

In its opening two numbers, “Basie Land,” performed by Count Basie, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Live),” performed by Ray Charles, “Century” is powered by the magnetic, expansive partnering of James Gilmer and Caroline T. Dartey, and Christopher R. Wilson, whose darting footwork strikes like invisible sparks.

But Garner can also use speed, however energizing, until it wears out its welcome. When Ashley Kaylynn Green — a dancer of absorbing, unaffected ebullience no matter the role — appears in profile at the start of “Why Your Feet Hurt” by Rebirth Brass Band, a different temperament, mercifully, takes over.

Rooted to the floor, Green gives in to the rise and fall of her body as it dips into the music’s groove. There are swinging, swimming arms as other dancers join in, including Michael Jackson Jr. and Christopher Taylor, giving their all to the song’s title chant. In this section, the sharpest in “Century,” all the dancers count. But it belongs to Green who springs up and down from the floor with so little concern for gravity that she seems more spirit than person.

To the spare, gentle “Total Praise” performed by Cyrus Chestnut, the dance takes a more meditative turn. Taylor, balancing on one leg, the other bent at a right angle, rotates ever so slowly; in other moments, which can get trite, he pauses to stare contemplatively into the distance.

But this is, after all, a birthday party — one that kicks into high gear again as the dancers dig into Garner’s fast feet and blurred spins. That their bodies remain legible is laudable, but there is a sameness in its adrenaline junkie pursuit of dance joy. In “Century,” the sections seem superficially linked, more by costume (Susan Roemer) and lighting and scenic design (Nicole Pearce) than by choreographic flow. They could almost exist as stand-alone numbers.

Caroline T. Dartey and James Gilmer performing in the premiere of “Me, Myself and You.”Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

A similar theme of looking back was present in Ailey’s other world premiere, “Me, Myself and You,” a duet by Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish, a former company member. Set to Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” as performed by Damien Sneed and Brandie Sutton, the shadowy work, shown Thursday, focuses on the memory of a romance.

Right off, there was a problem: the set. From my seat, it was virtually hidden from view, though somewhere in the left back corner of the stage, I could see a gleaming surface. The structure, credited to Roxas-Dobrish and Joseph Anthony Gaito, turned out to be a folding mirror screen.

From the start, the spotlight is on Dartey — this is the woman’s story more than the man’s — who wears a shimmering long robe by Dante Baylor. Extending a leg forward, she arches back with yearning. (We are in a sentimental mood.) After opening the screen and pressing against its reflection and curling a leg with longing, Dartey turns around and with a buoyant, exuberant leap, finds her way back to center stage.

As if it is a portal from another world, James Gilmer seems to enter through the mirror like mist, swooping in just in time to catch Dartey as she, again, extends a leg into the air and falls into his arms. Her robe slips away to reveal a sheer black dress, which matches Gilmer’s loose pants. When he embraces her, she slips out of his arms until all they hold is air.

Dartey and Gilmer. The spotlight is on Dartey — this is the woman’s story more than the man’s.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Repeatedly, they find each other, hooking elbows on occasion, and part ways. And so it goes. “Me, Myself and You” is a slight work, but not just because it’s so brief; instead of moving, it’s maudlin. When Gilmer slips away for good, the music ends and Dartey ponders her fate in silence.

Thursday also saw a new production of “Solo” by Hans van Manen that made the speed and virtuosity of Chalvar Monteiro, Yannick Lebrun and Patrick Coker priorities. Each were dashing enough, but as for the dance? Set to Bach, it’s packed with cloying gestures — the worst is a shrug — whimsically meant to break the fourth wall.

Ailey’s “Survivors,” featuring Jacquelin Harris and Vernard J. Gilmore as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, was more soulful in its penetrating look at the anguish of injustice. Dancing to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, they each held their spines with unsentimental power, and Harris, pouring her grief into potent tilts and contractions, was a force.

With each passing season, Harris becomes more expansive, more versatile, more luminous. On Friday, in Kyle Abraham’s “Are You in Your Feelings,” a love letter to Black culture and music set to soul, hip-hop and R&B, she shimmered, displaying a kind of pedestrian virtuosity in which every ounce of her tiny, eloquent body was the music.

“Revelations,” Ailey’s 1960 classic, closed both programs with some fine performances, including Akua Noni Parker, the former company member returning as a special guest opposite (the ageless!) Lebrun in “Fix Me, Jesus.” Monteiro’s “I Wanna Be Ready” held deep pockets of mystery and pain. And in “Sinner Man,” Isaiah Day, who, remarkably, is in his final year at Juilliard, rushed across the stage with glittering vehemence. Once you notice him, he’s hard to unsee: This is a dancer, somewhere between a boy and a man, and he seems headed for glory.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Through Dec. 31 at New York City Center in Manhattan;

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