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August 20, 2014, 8:36 am

Mo’Nique, Norman spark Ailey opener

  • Written by Jocelyn Noveck
  • Published in Lifestyles

NEW YORK — Over at Rockefeller Center they were lighting the Christmas tree, and a few blocks away at New York City Center, another much-cherished holiday tradition was taking place: the launch of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's annual season.

An essential part of that tradition, of course, is to perform the late choreographer's masterpiece, "Revelations." The challenge at each year's opening bash is to add a little something extra. On Wednesday evening, it came in the form of a celebrity presenter — the actress and comedienne Mo'Nique — and three high-profile guest singers.

First up was the opera singer Jessye Norman, whose rich soprano tones added an intensity to the already gripping "Fix Me, Jesus" section, danced with beautiful control by Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims.

Then came the Broadway leading-man voice of Brian Stokes Mitchell, delivering a soulful take on another traditional spiritual, "I Wanna Be Ready," danced by Antonio Douthit. And actress/singer Anika Noni Rose belted out a spirited "Sinner Man," that crowd-pleasing section that displays the full power and speed of the male Ailey dancers, represented here by Jamar Roberts, Yannick Lebrun and Kirven James Boyd.

Most performances of "Revelations" are performed to taped music, but that won't do on gala night — a huge red-carpet event that brought in $2.4 million this year. An impressive onstage musical ensemble supplemented the guest singers, including the terrific soloist Ella Mitchell, who got a rousing cheer after belting out the final number, the infectious "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham."

That number was more meaningful than usual: It was the last time many in the opening-night audience would see veteran Ailey dancer Renee Robinson perform it. Robinson, who retires after the Dec. 9 performance, has been with the company since 1981, making her its longest-serving female dancer.

Earlier in "Revelations," the dancer got a knowing cheer from the crowd as she floated into view carrying her famous white parasol from the "Wade in the Water" sequence, a beatific smile on her face. After all, it was likely that virtually everyone in the cavernous theater had seen her do it at least once in the past three decades.

Later, she donned the bright yellow church dress and wide-brimmed hat for the rollicking final section, where she was partnered by the majestic and expressive Matthew Rushing (he now serves as rehearsal director and performs as a guest artist.) The two of them, center stage and pointing skyward, remain an enduring image of many an Ailey evening.

But a season cannot be made up of "Revelations" alone — nor should it be — and for the night's opening piece the company turned to another reliable crowd-pleaser, "Minus 16" by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

"Minus 16," which artistic director Robert Battle added to the repertory last season, is a rather eccentric piece, set to a strange mix of music including, of all things, a Hebrew counting song often sung at Passover — but not usually by grim-faced dancers in black suits and hats who suddenly rip their clothes off and throw them on the floor. (Oh, and where else do you hear both "Hava Nagila" and "Hooray for Hollywood"?)

Still, the dance has become popular with Ailey audiences, not least because of a section where dancers suddenly descend into the aisles to enlist partners from the audience. These brave souls then get to twirl and shimmy onstage with their (much fitter) Ailey counterparts.

It's all good fun, particularly when the audience dancers really shed their inhibitions, as did one lucky woman on Wednesday. She was rewarded not only by being chosen as the last person onstage. She also got a huge ovation from the crowd — AND a shout-out from Mo'Nique.

"Float on, baby!" the actress gushed to the unidentified woman, by then safely ensconced in her seat, as she took the podium at the beginning of the second act. She said she'd even procured the phone number of the hunky dancer the woman had performed with.

"His name is Charles, and he's a Sagittarius," she quipped. – (AP)