Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater still a revelation at Berkeley's Zellerbach

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
San Francisco Examiner

By Cindy Warner

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to a loyal and diverse following of the spirited and spiritual, who packed Zellerbach auditorium at my alma mater UC Berkeley last night, kicking off three sold out programs through Sunday.  One piece recurs throughout, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the traditional spiritual Revelations, itself a soothing and joyful, uplifting celebration of rebirth, based on Ailey’s Southern gospel upbringing.  Revelations does look worth seeing in each program, with it’s flowing blue rivers of silk and fresh white ruffles and the Southern country charm of a white parasol, all set to traditional music by Ailey himself.

For a slideshow, ticket prices and more information:  Alvin Ailey returns to Berkeley

Judith Jamison

One gets to see the departing artistic director and former Ailey dancer, Judith Jamison, in a short retrospective film on Revelations, with Ailey telling of his roots and how he lived through the Martin Luther King era, Black churches and Southern baptism in the river.  Judith then explains on camera how Revelations, the cornerstone of this visit to Berkeley, starts with arms and hands reaching to the Heavens, fingers spread wide, as the nature of life burdens the soul.  One needs to be cleansed, Baptised, before entering the new kingdom.  It’s a short and classy, brave piece by film director Judy Kinberg, with black and white footage including Ku Klux Klan as well as a group Baptism with a congregaton in the water.

On that note.  How refreshing on the hot summery night we experienced in Berkeley last night, a grant of mercy after two miserable weeks of cold and rain, finally a heralding of spring.  The weather just created the perfect change in attitude, with Prodigal Prince starting the evening with a surreal Haitian jungle soundtrack with wild bird calls and lit torches.

The program starts in wild contrast to Revelations then, with a revival of a wild voodoo dream dance, the 1968 story of the Prodigal Prince.

Man, he attacked that solo, said the young woman from Pittsburg seated next to me on the aisle in the orchestra section.  Kirven James Boyd danced the prince.  His Prodigal Prince foretells or sets the stage for the Bible-based Revelations with a hint of how much Baptism plays a part in a new life.  Geoffrey Holder, the choreographer, bases this challenging, athletic and lengthy dance on the true story of a Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite, who sees a vision of John the Baptist along with a Voudoun goddess Erzulie and Hector imagines a sojourn to Africa.

I must have seen Geoffrey's performance during his dancing slave performance last year with the Met in Aida, the over-the-top spectacular which the Met simulcast worldwide.  However Geoffrey also paints well, being one of those creative types who have more than one outlet.

So it's exciting to see his multiple talents play out in Prodigal Prince, as the humble prince-to-be paints African gods, sells the paintings to a rich European and ends a lifetime of struggle.  Kirven James Boyd looked Haitian princely with sinewy muscles glistening throughout Geoffrey's frenzied and spellbinding vision.  Similarly Michael Francis McBride, built strong and athletic, gives a dominating, commanding performance as the Spirit, with just the right restraint to be authoritative without becoming melodramatic.  The man must have a double-jointed neck to mimic a snake-like creature about to strike.  Similarly, Renee Robinson gives a merciless and determined, wild performance in a fantastic, tall feathered headpiece, she dancing as The Mambo.  She’s built like a gymnast and used her strength.  Many of the male dancers seem built like agile athletes while the women are more petite yet strong.


This ritual gives way to the second number, a contemporary, refreshing, lighthearted jazzy spring-toned celebration of a dancer’s joy, beauty and creativity.  This is an Alvin Ailey piece with contemporary jazz piano by Keith Jarrett.  Michael Francis McBride as well as Clifton Brown emerge showing some stamina here as they just finished the opening number before intermission.

Yet this piece feels and looks as soft and fresh as spring air perfumed with blossoming trees and flowers.  Hand movements spiral softly like falling leaves or a feather, one almost feels a gentle breeze caressing one’s cheek warmly.  It’s a whisper or a kiss.  Dresses and legs swirl like pinwheels.  The lead dancer playing Ailey’s friend Joyce Trisler has this Billy Holiday 1940s retro-elegance, her serious facial expressions belying the exquisite emotions and beauty, giving way to lovely expressions of joy and exuberance.  Beautiful soft and flowing dresses by A. Christina Giannini, who gives the piece of burst of red silk.

Berkeley audience shows some skin

I also have to appreciate the down to Earth integrity of the Berkeley audience, some of whom were able to don sandals and skirts and sleeveless tops and rid themselves of their winter coats and bulky sweaters.  It’s so pleasant to be free of the pretentions and attitude one gets across the Bay sometimes and to simply ride my bicycle home after.  I actually went to Yogurt Park beforehand, which opened the year I lived across the street on the girls’ floor of Spens Black, 1977.  A small costs $3.30 now but the sweet customers actually looked older than I am, rather than the predominant college student age.  A lovely couple, forever young, asked me what flavors I chose (Ghirardelli chocolate and crème brulee).