Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is making up for lost time.
When it visited the Belk Theater for one sold-out night in 2006, it ended a three-decade hiatus since it had last come to Charlotte. In 2008, the Belk brought it back for three performances, also sellouts. On Feb. 9, it will settle into town for most of a week, and audiences will be able to experience it as never before.
The company will move down Tryon Street to the new Knight Theater. At the Knight, which is roughly half the size of the Belk, audiences will be nestled closer to the virtuoso dancers than they ever have been. They'll have the choice of seven performances and three different programs, showcasing the company's late founder and more than a dozen other choreographers.
Throughout all these visits - even in the 1970s - there have been a few constants.
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First, Ailey's signature work. "Revelations," whose power and appeal are so great that the globe-trotting company can rarely go longer than a night or two without offering this celebration of the spirit. It so happens that today is the 50th anniversary of the work's premiere in New York City. "Revelations" will close four of the performances in Charlotte.
Second, Judith Jamison. When the company came to Charlotte in the 1970s, she was its most electrifying dancer and the inspiration for some of Ailey's greatest works. Now, she's celebrating her 20th and final year as the company's artistic director - a job Ailey himself tapped her for, before his death in 1989. One of the Charlotte programs showcases works that she commissioned. Another program holds a work she choreographed, in which she "threw caution to the wind," she says.
"That's what artists are supposed to do in the first place," she explains. That leads to the third constant with the company: the philosophy Ailey instilled.
"You're supposed to be taking chances," Jamison says. "That's the philosophy of any dancer... of any body who has courage and they're brave and committed to what they're doing. That's the whole idea. Otherwise, what are we doing here?"
The company will put that into action with the three programs.
7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, 3 p.m. Feb. 14.
"Uptown" by Matthew Rushing: Rushing, a dancer in his 18th season in the company, created this 30-minute tribute to the Harlem Renaissance. Weaving in photographs and artworks, Rushing pays homage to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and their milieu. Music is by Fats Waller, Count Basie and others. "It's educational, it's uplifting and it's absolutely entertaining," artistic director Judith Jamison says.
"Dancing Spirit" by Ronald K. Brown: Borrowing the title of Jamison's autobiography, this new work pays tribute to her and Ailey. Brown's choreography blends modern dance, club dancing and movement from Cuba and Brazil. The result, Jamison says, is dancing that "springs (away) from the earth as well as being rooted in it... He has an extraordinary way of reinventing movement that is ancient and making it look new."
"Revelations" by Ailey: As a round-the-world crowd-pleaser, "Revelations" proves that dance is an international language. It's based on African-American spirituals. The choir sings about suffering from worries and sin, letting the burden be washed away, and celebrating the outcome. Viewers who don't understand the English words can sense the dancers' progress from burden to joy. The message of "Revelations," Jamison says, is "recognizable to people around the world for its humanity."
7:30 p.m. Feb. 10, 2 p.m. Feb. 13. On Feb. 12 at 8 p.m., "Uptown" and "Dancing Spirit" are combined with "Love Stories."
"Suite Otis" by George Faison: That's Otis as in Otis Redding. Faison danced in the Ailey company in the 1960s before jumping into choreography - winning a Tony for "The Wiz" on Broadway. He goes to work with "Satisfaction," "Try a Little Tenderness" and other Redding hits. "It's just plain fun," Jamison says.
"Among Us" by Jamison: Because the company's name ends with the word theater, Jamison wanted to fulfill that by creating a work with a theatrical flavor. "'Among Us' means that there's always a spiritual being among us," Jamison says. Some people think of it as an angel; others may have other terms. Her version is a dancer in blue - "This was before 'Avatar'!" she exclaims - who "pulls the strings for everyone else." He weaves through scenes involving art lovers, construction workers, a leader of a nation and others.
"Love Stories" by Jamison, Rennie Harris and Robert Battle: The music is by Stevie Wonder, and Jamison collaborated with two younger choreographers. Harris made his name by bringing hip-hop into the modern-dance world. As for Battle, "I keep calling him a maverick, because he is," Jamison says. "There's such a singular voice there."
'Best of 20'
7:30 p.m. Feb. 11, 8 p.m. Feb. 13
"Best of 20" by various choreographers: This is a showcase of works that the company commissioned or revived during Jamison's time as artistic director. There's a poignant solo from "Jukebox for Alvin" by Garth Fagan, Tony-winning choreographer of "The Lion King." "Lettres d'Amour" by the French choreographer Redha is "a forceful, sensual tour de force," Jamison says. Dwight Rhoden, a former Ailey dancer who is N.C. Dance Theatre's resident choreographer, is represented by part of his "Frames" - a scene called "Moonlight" describes intimate emotions.
The works whose revivals are recalled in "Best of 20" include a scene from a modern classic: Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," inspired by the toil of men in chain gangs. Jamison remembers being "overwhelmed" by "Shelter," a work about homelessness and poverty by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.
"Revelations" caps off this program, too.
Be on the lookout
Charlotte native Constance Stamatiou, a 2002 graduate of Northwest School of the Arts, won a spot in the main troupe in June 2007.
"Constance is a constant surprise to me, which is what I want," Jamison says. Stamatiou can take a familiar movement and "all of a sudden" give it fresh impact. "She's beautiful," Jamison says. "She's individual."