Robert Battle’s “The Hunt” Is a Powerful Addition to the
The curtain at New York City Center rose to reveal two figures, a man and a woman. As they danced together, it became clear that their relationship is one of a dance guru and his student. The tone is bittersweet. The movement starts with many gentle lifts before turning towards individual dancing. This first piece of the December 5th performance was Christopher Huggins’ Anointed, a tribute to Alvin Ailey and his company—and homage to the three artistic directors that have seen the company through its enormously successful 52 years, Ailey, Judith Jamison, and Robert Battle, who will soon take the reins of the company upon Jamison’s imminent departure.
A self-reflexive ballet like Balanchine’s Davidsbündlertänze—which conveys the madness of composer Robert Schumann—succeeds as a meditation on art and those who create it. It explores what art means for the artist, how it can change the lives of its audience and ultimately, what it means to be human. In this respect, Anointed falls flat, for it does not try to be anything more than a tame history of the company. There are no real human truths to find here, only a watered-down and idealized portrait of Ailey (towering like an angel in blinding white cloth) and his successors. It does not help that the music (by Moby and Sean Clements) is insistently bland, or that sections of the dance have such predictable titles as “Passing” and “Sally Forth.” The dancers themselves did an admirable job on Sunday—I particularly enjoyed watching Linda Celeste Sims, who brought both gravitas and energy to her role as the Jamison figure—but unfortunately their efforts were not enough to transcend the clichéd foundation of the piece.
Luckily, Robert Battle needs no anointing. His choreography speaks for itself. In the company premiere of Battle’s The Hunt, the choreographer proved himself capable of the shifts and subtleties in tone that make Ailey’s pieces so memorable—think, for example, of the final movement of Revelations, in which the gossiping church-goers are both amusingly irritable and filled with inner-light. The Hunt is a piece that showcases the remarkable talents of Ailey’s male dancers; its cast of six, dressed in long black skirts lined with red, power through the piece with agility and grace. I expected the piece, given its name, to be unrelentingly violent, and to some extent it is. At various points in the piece, the men pair off to fight. In the first section three of the six are wounded and dragged roughly along the ground; in another instance, the men group together in a circle and flex their backs and chests in quick contractions—a show of machismo perhaps. (This circle is one of many visually interesting choices that Battle makes. Unlike Huggins, whose circles are tidily placed center-stage, Battle’s circle of dancers is set far downstage and stage-right.)
But there are also strange little moments that part from this harsh and frenzied show of aggression in which a camaraderie—sometimes an almost loving gentleness, at times a strange sort of child-play—emerges. While in the circle, for example, the dancers slap each other hands as in a child’s game on the playground. Soon after they seem to play an oddly feral game of follow-the-leader. In the first section of the piece, they pair off into a charmingly awkward two-step.
I’m hesitant to try to define what Battle’s The Hunt may be about. At times it feels like the wild hunt of animals, at others I wondered if the aggression of this piece might be applied to street gangs, or those fighting wars. What seems to be most important is the contrast that Battle has cultivated between the playing and posturing and the violent nature of the piece. As the dance went on, and the unrelentingly percussive music drove the dancers’ movement to become more and more manic, I could feel the audience response ratcheting up. But when I heard the first excited whoop in response to the dancers’ intensity, my mind instantly returned to those near-dead bodies dragged across the floor at the beginning of the piece; and I wondered how many people had, like me, nearly forgotten.
The program was rounded off by two classic Ailey pieces: Cry, originally choreographed for Judith Jamison in 1971, and Ailey’s famous Revelations. Cry is a brilliant and moving piece, usually performed by one woman. On Sunday, a different dancer performed each of the three sections. While each of these women interpreted her part with imaginative grace, the decision to break the piece up lessened its emotional impact. When a single dancer takes on the demanding role, Cry tells a story of growth and transcendence, of despair turned to strength. This is lost I think, when it is not one woman alone on stage, struggling through the piece—both emotionally, and physically.
In the first section, the woman enters with a long white cloth held aloft before her face. In this production, as she moves forward from the back of the stage, overlapping circles of light follow her, as if she can’t escape the tedium and hardships in her life. Throughout this first part of the piece (my favorite), the cloth is alternately a rag with which to scrub the floor, a headscarf fit for nobility and rope that binds her to the ground. Finally, she lays the cloth down at the front of the stage, and she dances freely as she imagines different lives, maybe different worlds. Rachael McLaren’s portrayal was more introspective than I have seen before. She did not often project outwards, and I was more aware than usual of the fact that I was watching someone’s fantasy, rather than being brought into her thoughts. It’s an interesting interpretation—it certainly made me think about the piece in new ways—but I think that I prefer the fleeting feeling of being caught up in someone else’s dreams. The second section, danced with wonderful dramatic sensibility by Constance Stamatiou, conveys the feeling of being trapped by love, by circumstances, by one’s own mind, maybe. In the final section, Briana Reed demonstrated how grief can be turned to strength—and, for brief moments, to jubilation.
Revelations, the final piece on the program, is Ailey’s best known work, and while it turns fifty this year, it hardly feels dated. It is a piece heavily influenced by Ailey’s childhood in the South—the gospel music, the adults at church, his memories of his baptism—and the stories we see on stage are lovingly, carefully crafted. It is difficult to keep the works of deceased choreographers both relevant and true to the choreographer’s vision; New York City Ballet has struggled with the same problem since George Balanchine’s death. Yet Revelations seems to me as exciting as ever. On Sunday, I was impressed by Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims in “Wade in the Water,” both of whom gave nuanced, technically superb performances; and the opening of the piece, the quietly powerful “I Been ‘Buked,” never fails to amaze me.