Ailey II Review: A Light in the Darkness

As dance companies everywhere have tried to stay afloat during the pandemic, Ailey II, the second company of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has weathered other kinds of upheaval as well.

In July 2020, its artistic director, Troy Powell, was dismissed amid allegations of “inappropriate communications” with adult students in the company’s training program. In September 2021, the choreographer Francesca Harper, who got her start as a student at the Ailey School — when it was directed by her mother, Denise Jefferson — stepped in to lead the dancers.

The 12-member troupe is now back onstage at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in Midtown with a packed two-week season. On Friday, a mixed bill titled “Dichotomous” — the advertised theme was “contrasting elements and voices” — brimmed with the hopeful and sometimes unsure energy of a fresh start.

In “Saa Magni,” the dancer Meagan King and her partner, Christopher Taylor, let the music’s warmth and mournfulness guide them.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Ailey II operates as a kind of minor league, a stop on the path from advanced student to full-fledged professional. To watch the outstanding current crop of dancers — most of whom are just 22 years old — is to wonder where they’ll end up next, and to hope they find jobs worthy of their talent, whether within or outside the Ailey organization.

While “Dichotomous” included several premieres, the surprise hit was an older piece and the first on the program, Robert Battle’s stark and ferocious “The Hunt” from 2001. In one of her smartest creative choices so far, Harper proposed to Battle (the artistic director of the main company) that the work, originally created for a group of men, be performed by a cast of women.

In the resulting adaptation on Friday, four dancers — Jamaris Mitchell, Hannah Alissa Richardson, Brena Thomas and Rachel Yoo — displayed a thrilling solidarity, even as they embodied the opposing roles of hunter and hunted. Communing in a circle, unleashing stamps and shouts that echoed the recorded percussive score of Les Tambours du Bronx, they seemed to gather strength and stamina from eye contact with one another. Next to the other Battle works on the program — an excerpt from “Alleluia” (2002) and the slight new “Searchlight” — “The Hunt” felt by far the most vital.

Clockwise from top, Rachel Yoo, Jamaris Mitchell, Hannah Alissa Richardson and Brena Thomas in “The Hunt,” which was originally created for a group of men.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Another revelation was the brief duet “Saa Magni,” choreographed in 2019 by Yannick Lebrun, a longtime Ailey company member. To a transporting song of the same name by the Malian vocalist Oumou Sangaré, the petite, expansive Meagan King and her gentle partner, Christopher Taylor, let the music’s warmth and mournfulness guide them. A sense of romantic yearning grew heavier toward the end, as King, appearing on the verge of tears, draped herself over Taylor’s shoulder and they retreated into darkness.

An excerpt from William Forsythe’s “Enemy in the Figure” (1989), which closed the first act, served as a fine showcase for high-velocity convolutions and other technical feats. (Harper danced with Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt in the 1990s.) Among the nine dancers, Richardson, with her clear and calm authority, and Amar Smalls, who switched with breathtaking ease between speed and stillness, were standouts both alone and as equally intense partners.

The two newest works, Battle’s “Searchlight” and Harper’s “Freedom Series,” which made up the program’s second half, were also the most underdeveloped. The six-minute “Searchlight,” inspired by Harper’s relationship with her mother, seemed to end before it even began, with a whisper of an allusion to their cross-generational connection, amid lots of busy ensemble work.

Robert Battle’s six-minute “Searchlight” seemed to end before it even began.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“Freedom Series,” a suite of vignettes with sci-fi undertones, also felt unfinished, with an oddly abrupt end. But here, at least, the 11 dancers seemed more settled, as if Harper had met them on their wavelength, drawing out their strengths. (Richardson, Taylor and Elijah Lancaster, in particular, dazzled in their solo moments.) To an eclectic musical collage, the dancers coalesced and dispersed with glowing orbs in hand, at times using the props to illuminate one another. They looked immersed in their world and happy to be there together, which, after the past two years, is perhaps accomplishment enough.

Through April 3 at Ailey Citigroup Theater;

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