Cal Performances Hosts Alvin Ailey Dancers for 2019

Returning April 9-14 for its annual residency that began over 50 years ago in 1968, the venerable dance company brings three Bay Area premieres and some returning favorites to Zellerbach.


Dancer Michael Jackson Jr. performing in Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Photo by Andrew Eccles

The alchemy of a decades-long relationship, be it a marriage, business partnership, alliance between nations, or other, is more complex and nuanced than an orchestral score. It’s more advanced, intricate, and powerful than a silicon microchip. The lines weave through shared history, soaring through periods of harmony, invigorated by unexpected rhythms and enriched with stories and experiences that range from grand to tiny. Although the human, organic entities may become roughly textured, grooved, or even worn by dissonance or dents, they are never thrown irrevocably off-kilter nor separated by strife or boredom. Shared purpose and passion unite them but can’t explain the mysteries of the enduring bonds.

And so it is with Cal Performances and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Returning April 9-14 for its annual residency that began over 50 years ago in 1968, the venerable dance company helmed by artistic director Robert Battle leaps wholeheartedly into the Bay Area’s embrace. Three programs offer Bay Area premieres, including Rennie Harris’ Lazarus, Ronald K. Brown’s The Call, and Jessica Lang’s EN. Returning favorites include Shelter, choreographed by Willa Jo Zollar, and Battle’s Ella, among other works. Two matinee performances showcase a near 30-year span of Ailey’s choreography (1958-1986). All performances conclude with Ailey’s timeless, beloved work, Revelations.

“There are two important pieces of maintaining a long-term relationship,” said Cal Performances associate director Rob Bailis. “First, you’re committing to the entire life cycle of the artist and company, not just to a single work.”

Commitment allows for ambitious programming, like combining Ailey’s celebratory Revelations set to African-American spirituals, gospel songs, and holy blues with hip-hop master Harris’ robust, progressive Lazarus. The work’s imagery blends visuals of lynchings and civil rights activism with choreography influenced by the rhythms of hip-hop. The results are unexpected, expressive, “timely, and scarily so,” according to Battle.

“People have been moved by the work. There’s a notion of resistance in the vernacular of all street dance. Even if there’s a sense of fun, it’s in spite of what’s attempting to hold [a person] down.” Resistance, he emphasized, permeates contemporary political and social lives. “This work brings that forward for the dancers. They’re human, and they’re dealing with anger, with pent-up energy. Lazarus gives them a portal through the choreography’s fast footwork and isolations.” In dance, isolations are where a dancer’s ribs or hips might move while the rest of the body remains mostly still.

Over the years, allegiance between Cal Performances and the company has led to extensive community access, the second must-have Bailis suggested leads to enduring connections between presenter and performers. “We’ll have 300 of our people coming to dance Revelations on Sproul Plaza. It extends beyond just the stage. It gets into how we participate in the fullness of this company’s identity.”

Participation includes — in addition to the flash mob performance that is a part of the April run of shows — a community dance class during the residency and in the summer, the annual AileyCamp that allows students age 11-14 to participate in a program of tuition-free dance training and personal development.

Battle said he remembers his childhood in Miami, Fla., and the first time he saw the company. “I was a kid who wanted to dance and was therefore bullied. I saw these powerful men dancing with such pride and unabashed beauty. I saw an image that looked like me, and it made me think, ‘I can take this bullying. I can go on.’ Now, as a director, I can give back to the widest audience possible through likely and unlikely partnerships that take the art to people. It’s so important to this company.”

This year, particular pleasures come in the spectral score of The Call, which includes Bach, jazz, and Malian music. The Mary Lou Williams Trio selection, chosen in part because Ailey loved her music; Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 6 in G Major; and a photo of Ailey dancing with Carmen de Lavallade inspired what Battle said is Brown’s tip-of-his-hat thanks to Ailey for creating a dance company that celebrates and features African Americans. Understated, intimate moments in the dance reminded Battle of long-ago car rides with his great uncle. “He was in his late years and drove the same speeds — even when people would pull up alongside and shout superlatives about his slow driving. I’d be crouching in the seat, embarrassed. But The Call has that same profound steadiness that I loved underneath it all.”

Lang’s work offers circularity and connection. Battle and Lang attended The Juilliard School and had the same teachers. Later, crossing paths at a New York City studio as directors of their independent dance companies, Battle mentioned a piece he planned to set on Ailey’s second company. “She suggested her boyfriend [dancer Kanji Segawa] would be good in the piece. He was so good, he ended up dancing in my company.” Battle gave a toast at their wedding, and 10 years later commissioned a work by Lang. En is a Japanese word referencing coming full circle. “It’s beautiful to think about relationships and how you never know when you’ll meet again,” he said. “The dance is brilliant in her use of space, props, and the set design.”

Battle said the Timeless Ailey program speaks to the choreographer’s resonance in modern times, while reflecting on his genius. “I don’t think of his works as old works. I think of them as being a part of now. I sit at the last desk he sat at before he died in 1989. I am proud. We don’t mind looking back to move forward. If it gets too new, it’s a way of losing confidence.”

As an artist, black man, and the company’s third artistic director and a citizen of the world, Battle said his responsibility is to continue providing opportunities for “certain people.” Modern dance is not just to be seen but comes with messages to be heard. Dancers live out their dreams onstage. Audiences are moved to tears or joyful celebration of life.

Bailis said he believes the level of excellence rises every year. “It’s at the highest imaginable level. It’s their trademark. It’s in their diasporic view of choreographers: Whose voices are they elevating? Across the broad view of African-American identity, that legacy and constant contemporary renewal and updating, [are] a rare gift. We have the opportunity to amplify that history, enhance contemporary voices, and take them into the future. It’s a huge legacy and why it’s a pleasure to work with them.”

Asked to dream, to speculate about expanding the partnership, Bailis said commissioning an original work by Battle or a company-selected choreographer is first on his list. “If you can bring the actual making of a work into the community, it changes everything. It gives an audience opportunities to see the work made, developed and then performed. It cultivates trust and investment. We’ve been part of a consortia, but to bring it into our mix, that would be amazing.”

Battle spoke of Destiny Dance, a program in Atlanta that has the company partnering with cultural and civic organizations. A year-round presence includes performances, workshops, collaborations with the business community, museums, and other arts organizations. “It’s hugely beneficial to the community and to the company. I’d like to make that program work here in Berkeley too.”

And so it is that a time-tested relationship bears fruit and lays the seeds of hope — and more unimaginably excellent dance — to come.

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, April 9-14, 8 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun., $38-$40, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley,

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.