Alvin Ailey: Dance that speaks to the soul

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

Dance-lovers should plan on attending two performances this weekend if they want the full Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater experience. The modern dance company – a long-time favorite of Detroit audiences – returns to the Detroit Opera House with two distinct programs spanning a repertoire of time, choreographers and themes.

“It’s an opportunity to see some of the greatest dancers on the planet,” said Jon Teeuwissen, Detroit Opera’s artistic advisor for dance. “The nature of the work is going to speak to someone’s soul, and they can almost be guaranteed to be uplifted by their experience of the work.”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Kyle Abraham's "Are You in Your Feelings?"

The visit will be somewhat of a homecoming for dancer Jacquelin Harris. Though a native of North Carolina, Harris’s paternal grandparents plus numerous aunts, uncles and cousins live in Detroit, and she has many fond memories of visiting the city.

“I spent many a summer in Detroit enjoying the good weather, the fireworks, the good food and family out there, so I’m excited,” she said. “(My family) is bringing a busload of maybe 40 people to see one of my performances.”

Harris said the weekend’s programs showcase a range of the company’s diverse repertory.

Friday’s program features Kyle Abraham’s newest work “Are You in Your Feelings?” and Twyla Tharp’s “Roy’s Joys.”

With a “mixed tape” of music that includes songs by Erykah Badu, Drake, The Flamingos, Lauryn Hill, Shirley Brown and Kendrick Lamar, among others, Alvin Ailey’s Artistic Director Robert Battle said “Are You in Your Feelings?” is a celebration of Black culture, especially Black love.

“It has this wonderful collage that has something for everybody,” he said. “When people are watching it, it’s sort of tapping into some memory for that particular audience member, and it creates this kind of electricity in the audience.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform "Survivors," choreographed by the late Alvin Ailey.

“Roy’s Joys” is a tribute to legendary jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge, which Harris said is a sultry piece and a great representation of Tharp’s laid-back style that mixes ballet and modern dance.

“(It’s) all the things we love about dance, the technique, but also the good music (and) having a great time with your friends on stage,” she said. [It’s} being spontaneous and flirtatious and showcasing the many depths of the human experience.”

Saturday and Sunday’s program includes “Survivors,” a powerful piece about anti-apartheid activists Nelson and Winnie Mandela, plus two of Battle’s own works.

Company founder and choreographer Alvin Ailey created “Survivors” in the 1980s in response to Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, and the work will be performed for the first time since 1988.

Harris said the story is one still relevant today with a reach beyond South Africa.

“It’s the story of injustice, the story of fighting, the story of protest, the story of overcoming and remaining strong in your mission and your power,” she said. “It transcends over any generation, over any location.”

Battle’s works cover a range of ground and time. His 2007 duet “Unfold” is performed to vocals by opera great Leontyne Price – a longtime inspiration for Battle – expressing his love for her singing as well as celebrating romantic love.

Named for the time signature of its music and its number of dancers, “For Four” is a pandemic-era work expressing the issues of its period. Performed to music by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, the exuberant piece is a release of pent-up energy from the long period of staying at home during the pandemic. But Battle said it also explores the anger and frustrations of the racial reckoning of the time.

“That dance, it’s light if that’s what you see, but there’s a little darker side to the dance as well,” he said.

Both programs feature the company’s signature work, “Revelations,” a soulful piece created by Ailey in 1960.

“It’s a beautifully crafted piece of choreography that’s got a spectrum of experiences from grief to joy,” Teeuwissen said.

Battle said he created the programs to showcase the range and versatility of the company and why it has stood the test of time. 

“It feeds the soul,” he said, “and if that interests you, you should definitely come out.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

1526 Broadway St., Detroit

Detroit Opera House

Tickets: $29 and up