Alvin Ailey passed away in 1989 but the company he founded in 1958 is still going strong. A regular visitor to Chicago, the troupe returns to Auditorium Theatre March 6-10 with a program that includes “Lazarus,” a musing on Ailey’s life and legacy, created by hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris.
Philadelphia-raised Harris first got to know the company in 2004, when he was invited to contribute to a piece titled “Love Stories,” working with then-artistic director Judith Jamison and modern dance choreographer Robert Battle, who helms the organization today. “This was the first time I saw Mr. Ailey’s work,” shares Harris, whose Rennie Harris Puremovement has celebrated the expressive power of street styles since 1992. “My initial thought was, wow, this is amazing. He captured the plight of, or essence of, black individuals without compromise.”
“Lazarus” is a meditation on the harsh realities Ailey faced as a black artist in a white society, rather than a straight-up biography. “I was interested in what was going on around him while he was carrying the flag of free speech, expression, and choice,” says Harris.
The piece is also rooted in Harris’s long immersion in hip hop dance. Working with performers with bodies shaped by ballet and modern dance, he approached the task in an inventive way. “I’d use their terminology to explain the movement,” he explains. “I wanted them to do the hip-hop dance, “The Brooklyn Bounce” (aka: “the BK Bounce”), so I’d ask them to get in a fourth position plié, then jump up to relevé with their feet turned inward, and then return to the fourth position in plié and repeat it.”
When he reflects on postmodern dance of the early 1960s, Harris remarks, “If I add pedestrian walking to hip-hop choreography, does that make it modern? Pedestrian movement is the crux of the hip-hop vocabulary. Essentially, my work is inspired by the day-to-day and the life of the African American community at large.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
March 6-10, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells. Tickets $34-$104.
Visit www.auditoriumtheatre.org for tickets.