ALVIN AILEY | Festa Barocca

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NY City Center

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 7:30 PM

Festa Barocca (2008), choreographed by Mario Bigonzetti; music by G. F. Handel; costumes by Marc Happel.

This is a big, ebullient, full-ensemble piece that captures the spirit of the baroque—as its title and Handel soundtrack properly assert (and as its detractors have seemed oblivious to). Music apart, moreover, we see Baroque and baroqueness everywhere: in the wild abundance of color, in the generous undulations of silk, in spines’ swiveling slopes and limbs’ curlicues, in the mutability yet precision, extravagance yet playfulness overall. Amid the ornate, boisterous choreography here—especially lovely in the three duets—there are touches of flamenco, of courtly mannerism (at one moment a dancer’s stretch becomes a fancy curtsy), of hip-hop, of tango, of capoeira, of breaking, of voguing, of queeny righteousness. Where there’s baroque, there is exuberant attitudinal flaunting; so, too, here.

The piece begins with Hope Boykin dancing center-stage to the minuet from Rodelinda in front of a bright array of nearly still dancers, who move out little by little, step-wise and on beat, collectively like the slow-motion expansion of some impossibly colorful underwater plant. Boykin is MC-cum-sorceress, igniting the proceedings with each snap, conjuring forth movement from her still marionettish crew. When conscripted—or freed—into motion, the dancers in their larger formations soon reveal a choreography that is particularly upper-body-intensive. Arms coil, thrust out, frame the body at big angles, weave before the face in quick flourishes like a magician before the reveal, hoop around the partner’s body at great speed and varying heights—but without touching—like a game of tag for desiring adults.

Having now seen this performance, one cannot but find the two New York Times reviews of Festa Barocca’s debut this time last year wildly—perhaps willfully—out of touch. Alastair Macaulay complained of too much that is “acrobatic”—any trace of stunty mass entertainment clearly heretical—as well as “foot fetishism.” But what he deemed “foot fetishism” was Bigonzetti’s attempt to consider for feet in dance some role other than points of gravitation, tips of leg extension, deserving tangency only with the ground. Why not use the foot’s flexed firmness to hook and hang from, why not let the curves of that neglected ticklish surface between toes and heel run over and find rhyme along the partner’s body? Two of the most affecting duets in Festa Barocca—between Constance Stamatiou and Clifton Brown, and then between Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims—do just that. One gets the impression that feet—the biped’s workhorses, after all, the body parts that affirm our earthliness with every use, precisely by keeping the rest of our bodies from touching the ground—are for Macaulay, who writes so superbly on ballet, still the bloodied, bruised embarrassments to be tucked up in shapely satin.

In a less protracted dismissal, Roslyn Sulcas in her review marveled of what she deemed “no kind of refinement” that “The audience loved this, as though they were privy to some sort of insider joke.” One might marvel instead, however, that such a disdainful and uninformative sentence, along with non-descriptions such as “fake-intense, semi-sexy, semi-anguished duets,” can get by as dance criticism. That it has might even lead one to presume some telltale demographic gap between NYT readers and Alvin Ailey ticket-holders that does not in fact exist. It is Sulcas’s problem, in other words, not the audience’s. To imply that “refinement” should be dance’s sole ambition, sole criterion, is to amputate from dance’s universe a majority of its cultures and epochs. And indeed there were jokes throughout Festa Barocca. And that was the point—this transmutation and elaboration of recognizable vocabulary (recognizable from neighborhoods, from clubs, from television if nothing else) into abstracter forms, more complex formations. One need not have been any insider to revel in them, or to find splendor and take joy in the whole.

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