"Odetta" A new masterpiece for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Sun Times

Named rehearsal director and guest artist in 2010, [Matthew Rushing] also has turned his attention to dance-making. “Odetta” is only his third creation for the company and it’s a beauty.

A gorgeous blend of richly expressive movement set to the formidable vocal stylings of Odetta, the late singer dubbed “the voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” the work is comprised of 10 memorably theatrical, character-driven  sequences that flip from expertly limned comedy to fierce political commentary. Without question, Rushing’s work is an instant classic, and might very well become a fresh signature piece that can stand right alongside Alvin Ailey’s beloved “Revelations” in its ability to both explore African American life and connect with a universal audience.

Rushing has strung together 10 songs in very different moods and musical styles. The striving, spiritual nature of the work is established at the start with “This Little Light of Mine” — a swirling solo (danced with fervor at Friday’s opening night by company veteran Hope Boykin), that culminates with the full cast of eleven.

Designer Travis George’s ingenious set pieces — wooden forms rearranged to suggest everything from a church to railroad tracks — are carried in by the dancers, with Dante Baylor’s artfully patchworked costumes, and Andre Vasquez’s handsome lighting conjuring a folkloric world.

Belen Pereya led the “Ox Driver Song,” and Renaldo Maurice gave a searing rendering of “John Henry,” that steel-driving folk hero. For pure comic charm it would be hard to beat “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” in which Odetta teamed with Harry Belafonte. 

The dancers joined to suggest a train journey to glory in “Motherless Children,” before the mood turned more inward with “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” danced with controlled passion by Kanji Segawa. “Cool Water” inspired an exquisite love duet, magnificently danced by the poetic Sarah Daley and Yannick Lebrun.

And then came an unexpected explosion — Odetta’s version of the Bob Dylan song, “Masters of War” — a riveting anti-war piece (with the fired-up ensemble led by Michael Francis McBride and Danica Paulos) that could easily stand on its own. Sustaining the formidable momentum of that sequence was Megan Jakel’s rendering of “Glory, Glory.” Jakel, with her great mane of red curls, is a sensational dancer whose speed and intensity light up the stage. The ensemble gathered for the finale, ‘Fredom Trilogy,” an Ailey-esque expression of communal uplift. All in all, a knockout.

This piece for nine dancers (set to a thrilling hammer-and- anvil-like score by Robert Ruggieri) requires a combination of bravura technique involving fiercely complex partnering and killer timing, and scorching emotional connection. The dancers, dressed in sleek black velvet, attacked every high-intensity encounter with razor-sharp precision and attitude, with Friday’s ensemble featuringd breathtaking dancing by Kirven Douthhit-Boyd, Sean Arnold Carmon, Jeroboam Boeman, Marcus Jarrell Willis, Renaldo Maurice, Rachael Mclaren, Sarah Daley, Megan Jakel and Demetia Hopkins-Greene.

And then, of course, the program ended with “Revelations” — perhaps the only work in the world that has the audience in a state of audible exaltation even before the curtain goes up.
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