When Alvin Ailey choreographed “Survivors,” in 1986, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for more than 20 years. Four years later, the South African leader would be released, but Ailey didn’t know that yet. He described his dance as “a kind of compendium and abstraction of my rage.”
“Survivors” is the major revival of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s current season at New York City Center, and that rage can still be felt. As the work opens, a Mandela figure (Vernard J. Gilmore) slowly advances, followed by a small chorus that includes a dancer representing his wife, Winnie (Ghrai DeVore-Stokes). Already, the bars of a jail cell hang above him. Soon, they will descend.
Those bars (set design by Douglas Grekin) are effective. There’s no doubt about what they signify, and yet they are still semiabstract. A single-sided, fencelike facade, they separate Mandela from the other dancers but don’t actually enclose him, so some of his imprisonment has to be supplied by a viewer’s imagination. The rage comes through the music.
The score, by the jazz drummer Max Roach, interlaces his “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/ Peace” (from his great 1960 album “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” which connected the American civil-rights struggle with the anti-apartheid movement) and his 1984 song “Survivors.” “Prayer” sets a tone of melancholy determination, with a quiet snare-drum march and the deep, wordless vocalizing of Abbey Lincoln. In “Survivors,” dissonant strings strike in slashes, and the dancers react as if hit by billy clubs. Throughout “Protest,” as Roach’s drums rage, Lincoln screams.
This is powerful stuff, but the dance vocabulary is pretty much standard Ailey: the same reaching limbs, balances and hinged layouts familiar from so much of his work. The set allows for some novel pathos in a duet for the Mandelas. He partners her through the bars, supporting her tilted balances and touching her breasts. They are separated lovers as well as political heroes.
Gilmore brings his sweetness to Mandela, but it’s a slight role, hemmed in by limited choreography as much as by the bars. This is Winnie’s dance, or DeVore-Stokes makes it so. She has been having a terrific season, electric in Jamar Roberts’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Kyle Abraham’s “Are You In Your Feelings?” Here, her controlled intensity matches that of Lincoln’s sound. At the end, she leads the chorus offstage, advancing by kicking out a foot and slamming it down. It’s easy to believe that she is strong enough not just to survive but to win.
Connecting jazz drumming and protest, “Survivors” resonates interestingly with much more recent work in the company repertory, including Robert Battle’s “For Four” (2021) and Roberts’s “Ode” (2019). The company founder knew his jazz and how it could channel anger about the treatment of Black lives. Those links help justify revival of “Survivors,” though it is no lost masterpiece.
Neither is Twyla Tharp’s “Roy’s Joys,” which debuted in 1997 and was then put on the shelf. It wasn’t performed again until the Ailey company acquired it this season. The work is set to tracks that the swing-era jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge recorded in France. In some, he sings in French — about, say, lettuce and mayonnaise. The title of the first song sets the attitude: “Just Fooling.”
If much of “Survivors” is standard Ailey, much of “Roy’s Joys” is standard Tharp, combining virtuosic ballet moves with 1940s stylings, insouciance and humor. That’s good fun, though the opening night cast on Friday was still finding the style. Virtuosic is right up the Ailey alley; floppy and goofy are less familiar.
Chalvar Monteiro has no trouble with the pelvis rotation of snakehips, and Miranda Quinn has the quickness essential to Tharpian wit. But James Gilmer and Jacquelin Harris had a head start, having appeared in Tharp’s last two seasons at City Center. Their duet in “Roy’s Joys” is true romance. When she jumps across a large distance into his arms, it isn’t a stunt. It’s soft, easy, like she really is happy to be there.
Truly, it’s hard to take your eyes off Harris — in “Roy’s Joys” or any other work she appears in. Over the past few years, she has blossomed, taking on challenges outside of the Ailey repertory with seeming effortlessness. She never shows off. She just dances cleanly, directly, fearlessly, often with a genuine smile. The joys of Ailey’s Tharp revival aren’t so much Roy’s as Harris’s — and whenever she’s onstage, ours.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Through Dec. 24, New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org.