Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater resumes in-person performance The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater shifted to streaming presentations online during pandemic. Now, two dances conceived for the web are included in the company's return to in-person performance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brings 2 dances made for the web to the stage

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Like most performing arts organizations, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater stopped giving in-person concerts in March 2020. Instead, they began to create online content. Now, two of the pieces conceived for streaming are being put onstage for a live audience - hooray - as the company returns to New York City Center tonight. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Robert Battle, Alvin Ailey's artistic director for the past 10 years, says the dancers were out on the road when everything shut down.

ROBERT BATTLE: They actually had just flown to Dallas, and we brought them home.

LUNDEN: Not only did the tour halt, but The Ailey School and all other activities ceased. Battle says some of the younger members of the company decided to film themselves at home performing excerpts from Alvin Ailey's masterpiece, "Revelations," and spliced together a video.


BATTLE: And I think it spoke to the time because in these little recordings that they put together, you saw their dogs walking across and looking; you saw their children joining in. Their homeplace became their workplace, like for all of us.

LUNDEN: That video sparked the company to create a digital platform, Ailey All Access. And within strict COVID protocols - this was before there were any vaccines - they began to create new dances to stream.

JAMAR ROBERTS: They told me, you know, we want to commission you to make a piece, but you must know that this piece has to be socially distant.

LUNDEN: Jamar Roberts is Ailey's resident choreographer.

ROBERTS: And I said, wow. And then I said, OK, because I love challenges. I had to figure out how to make a piece where no one touches, where we rehearse in mask the entire performance - so I can't see any facial expressions - and (laughter) make it all make sense (laughter).


LUNDEN: In the video, there are 25 socially-distanced squares on the stage, and a large square, a cube, is pushed on for a solo dance. Roberts calls the piece "Holding Space."

ROBERTS: "Holding Space" is a play on words three times over. It's the wellness term, as in the active presence and being there for someone. It is an actual holding space. And then also the word, space. I kind of decked the piece out in this kind of high-tech, futuristic kind of look, mainly as a veneer to kind of draw the audience in, only to have them later find out that maybe this piece is about something a little bit deeper.


LUNDEN: Artistic director Robert Battle created his own socially-distanced dance for streaming - a quartet. It's called "For Four" - F O U R.

BATTLE: The music is in 4/4. It's Wynton Marsalis. It's frenetic. It's a little saucy. But also, that frenetic-ness is both fun and also, I think, speaks to the way we've all felt - a little like we don't know if we're going or coming. Should we be happy? Are we angry? Are we sad?


LUNDEN: And for Battle, it wasn't just about the pandemic.

BATTLE: But because of the political atmosphere, because of the racial atmosphere, if you will, all of the things that were going on - take one of them and it's enough to cause severe anxiety. Take them all together and we're not able to be on stage where we usually can dance that stuff out - ugh (ph). We needed "For Four." We needed something to kind of bring us together.

LUNDEN: And now, audiences will be able to see "For Four" live as it enters Ailey's repertory. Battle says he didn't need to change much since the filmed version was choreographed on a proscenium stage, and the cameras zoomed in on individual performers. Jamar Roberts says "Holding Space" is...

ROBERTS: Essentially the same piece without the squares - that is what I tried to do. I didn't want to, you know, suddenly choreograph moves where people were touching each other because I wanted it to be a sort of a document of that particular time.

LUNDEN: The 3-week season at New York's City Center will be the last time that Jamar Roberts appears with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He'll be retiring and performing a new solo called "You Are The Golden Hour That Would Soon Evanesce," which documents his feelings right now. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


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