Alvin Ailey returns to Bay Area with new take on’Revelations’

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s annual Cal Performances residency has been a high point of the Bay Area spring arts season for so long that the grandchildren of the Cal students who saw the company’s 1968 Wheeler Hall debut could be old enough to join Ailey’s ranks.

But after 56 years, AAADT is still full of surprises and unexpected delights, even when it comes to its the company’s most often performed and iconic work, “Revelations.” The AAADT’s six-night residency April 2-7 features five different programs across seven performances, all but one of which concludes with Ailey’s masterly 1960 setting for spirituals and gospel music.

Drawing on what longtime Ailey dancer Renee Robinson called the choreographer’s “blood memories” of growing up in Rogers, Texas, “Revelations” features a sanctified score with classic arrangements of Sunday morning staples such as “Fix Me, Jesus,” “Wade In the Water,” “Sinner Man,” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”

But on April 4, AAADT presents “Revelations” with a gospel chorus conducted by Damien Sneed. He collaborated with the company as music director for the piece at City Center in New York last November as part of the company’s home season gala, and this reprise is the first time “Revelations” is being presented outside of New York with live music.

It’s the centerpiece of the Cal Performances Gala 2024, which includes a cocktail reception before the performance and a dinner afterward with a menu by Oakland’s award-winning Brown Sugar Kitchen chef Tanya Holland. The program also includes the Bay Area premieres of Alonzo King’s “Following the Subtle Current Upstream” and Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish’s “Me, Myself and You” (which features Sneed’s concert arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” sung by soprano Brandie Sutton).

A conservatory trained vocalist, organist, conductor and arranger, Sneed is a polymathic artist who has worked with giants in jazz, pop, R&B and classical music, including Howard Wiley, whom he joined for several electrifying Joe Henderson Lab performances a few weeks ago as part of the Oakland saxophonist’s stint as an SFJAZZ resident artistic director.

For “Revelations,” Sneed is tapping into the Bay Area’s deep pool of talent, with a band led by pianist Glen Pearson (who just won a Grammy Award with the Count Basie Orchestra) and vocalists such as Valerie Troutt, Jeannine Anderson, Bryan Dyer, and Patrick Sturgis.

“They’re all top noted Bay Area musicians and it’s really exciting to have such a great group of singers,” said Sneed, who noted the particular challenge of re-creating a score so deeply etched into the minds of dancers and audiences.

“This isn’t about singing freely, but in full alignment with the choreography, which they’ve done so many times to recorded music. It’s tricky but it brings an even greater level of fire to the performance.”

For Sneed, who grew up in Augusta but forged deep ties to the Bay Area scene by attending Jazz Camp West as a teenager, the Ailey company provided a formative experience around the age of 8 when his mother took him to see the AAADT for his first performance.

As the founder and artistic director of highly regarded Chorale Le Chateau, which ranges across the vocal literature from Renaissance ballads to art songs, jazz, and contemporary music, Sneed was an obvious choice for the “Revelations” assignment, particularly given his close relationship with the late, legendary diva Jessye Norman, who often performed and recorded Negro spirituals.

The company returns to Berkeley at a rare moment of transition. In November, the AAADT’s third artistic director, Robert Battle, announced he was immediately stepping down due to health concerns. He took over from Judith Jamison, who is widely credited with transforming the company into a creative juggernaut during her two-decade tenure following Alvin Ailey’s death at the age of 58 in 1989. Matthew Rushing, Ailey’s associate artistic director, is leading the company while the board of trustees conducts a search for a new director.

A respected choreographer himself, Battle expanded the company’s already dauntingly diverse repertoire, commissioning new pieces by hip-hop-steeped dancemakers Rennie Harris and Ronald K. Brown, acquiring works by Paul Taylor, Wayne McGregor, Ohad Naharin and appointing company dancer Jamar Roberts as AAADT’s first resident choreographer.

Among the dozen or so dances on the Ailey programs are two Bay Area premieres. Amy Hall Garner created “Century” as a 100th birthday present for her grandfather, drawing on music he loves by Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and the Rebirth Brass Band. She was pondering what she could give him as a gift when she got a call from AAADT Artistic Director Robert Battle in 2022 with the assignment.

“The timing was divine,” she said. “My grandpa has been such a supporter of my dance career. It’s also a nod to Mr. Ailey, because they’re around the same age, and come from similar backgrounds.”

Ailey’s presence is still woven deeply into the company, memory embodied in former AAADC dancer Roxas-Dobrish’s dreamy duet “Me, Myself and You.” Born in Manila, she moved to New York in 1979 and became Ailey’s first Filipina dancer, serving as a principal from 1984-1997. She teaches Horton technique at the Ailey School and is often involved in restaging his works.

“Mr. Ailey was so embracing and inclusive,” she said, “When he said ‘Welcome to the family’ he really meant it. He walked me down the aisle when I got married, a memory that lasted longer than the marriage. He was an amazing man.”

Contract Andrew Gilbert at [email protected]


ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER

Presented by Cal Performances

When: April 2-7

Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

Tickets: $40-$168; www.calperformances.org

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