It’s almost too much to ask that that an abstract art like music or dance address the issues of our times. And in fact a lot of bad, or at least heavy-handed and programmatic art has been made in the name of big ideas. But sometimes, for whatever reason, a work seems to expand beyond the edges of the stage, vibrating in sympathy with feelings and thoughts floating around the streets. We can talk and read and argue about social issues like racism, exclusion, and disillusionment. We can march about them, as many are now doing. But there is something stirring about the experience of hearing such feelings expressed by a voice raised in song, translated for the instruments of a symphony orchestra, illustrated by a moving body. The experience can bring people together in a moment of collective understanding, however fleeting.
This is what I felt on Dec. 10 at the première of Odetta, Matthew Rushing’s new work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It may have been a purely subjective feeling, and who knows, I may be completely off the mark, but my sense was that I was watching a timely and somehow important work, one that was begging to be made and had captured a feeling in the air. Partly, the piece succeeded because it wasn’t directly about race or change or politics. It was conceived as a tribute Odetta Holmes—known as “Odetta”—the gospel/folk/blues/jazz singer who became one of the leading voices of the Civil Rights movement. It was Odetta’s extraordinary voice—low, pungent, by turns foghorn-loud and caressing—that led the way.
I’ll admit I had never heard of her; my musical education leaned more toward Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau than Bob Dylan, for better or for worse. But not knowing who she was was no impediment to being instantly walloped by that voice, operatic in scale, unsparing, and emotionally transparent. Rushing’s Odetta was set to a selection of her songs— religious hymns, work chants, folk melodies, and Bob Dylan’s scathing anthem “Masters of War”—intercut with passages of her speaking voice. Both communicated an immense anger and sadness, feelings justified by her own personal experience.
Odetta was born in the heart of the Jim Crow south, in Birmingham Alabama, 1930, and grew up to march alongside Martin Luther King. She saw first-hand the ugly side of white folk. After college, she found her home and artistic family in the folk music scene, a milieu that sought authenticity and relevance through a return to roots. She brought to her music a wealth of experience and a voice like a freight train.
Rushing’s choreography and storytelling are less pungent than Odetta’s songs; he does well not to try to compete. But the songs color the dances. And the dances, in turn, soften the sometimes monolithic force of the songs. In the Ailey veteran Hope Boykin the choreographer has found a protagonist who, like a beloved sister or protector, can be both stern and soft, despairing and hopeful. He gives to her the work’s moments of grace; she luxuriates, with warmth and lightness, in his sensual, precise movements, mixing elements of African dance with Ailey, Caribbean touches, samba. The cast of eleven is mixed, giving the lie to the notion that Alvin Ailey is a “black” company. Rushing pushes us to see the dancers in a new light, opening up hitherto unknown aspects of their dancing and their stage personalities. For Kanji Segawa, he has created a solo of aching loneliness, all slow unfoldings of the limbs and lingering balances, and set it to “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” (“Long long way from home,” Odetta moans in the background.) Segawa looks as if he were pulling himself out of a morass of solitude.
“Masters of War” is an indictment of the seemingly endless cycle of American military entanglements, of men (and women) pulled away from their lives and loves to kill and be killed. Here, Rushing has given the main role, of a man afraid to die, to Michael Francis McBride, normally a smiling classicist who happens to be white, and whom I often think of, privately, as “The Little Prince.” In “John Henry,” a song about a man whose life of hard labor sends him to an early grave, Renaldo Maurice’s solo becomes angrier and angrier as he rages against the injustice of his life. The other dancers, perched on benches or sprawled on the floor, pound out an increasingly insistent tattoo. (A set of benches is well used throughout the work, demarcating spaces that evoke a church, a train, a community hall or a stage. The designer is Travis George. The costumes, by Dante Baylor, are appealingly un-hip: fringed and patched and hippy-ish.)
There is beauty and humor too, and love. A pas de deux for Sarah Daley and Jermaine Terry set to “Cool Water” shows off Daley’s eloquent, sorrowful line and pristine classical training. A clownish duet set to the humorous call-and-response ditty “A Hole in the Bucket,” sung with Harry Belafonte, provides a moment of levity. (It also reminds me of “Shutters Shut,” a piece for the Netherlands Dance Theatre set to a poem by Gertrude Stein.) In the end, Rushing offers a kind of reconciliation. Hope Boykin embraces Megan Jakel and the company returns for a final, harmonious ensemble. The ending may be too consolatory, too soft, but then, one senses that Mathew Rushing is a generous man, more gentle than Odetta, more willing to forgive. And after the despair and anger provoked by the violent deaths of Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there is something to be said for a piece that offers some hope that things will get better, for everyone.