By Walter Rutledge
On Tuesday, December 17, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented Celebrating Matthew Rushing an evening of dance honoring Mathew Rushing’s twenty-year association with the company. Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison began the evening by recounting her relationship with Rushing. Jamison shared with us how she, former School Director Denise Jefferson and Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya met a talented teenager at an audition in California.
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The trio saw Matthew’s special gifts and offered him a scholarship to the school (effective upon graduating high school). Rushing moved to New York and in less than a year went from scholarship student to member of Ailey II, under the direction of Sylvia Waters, to being recruited by Jamison for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Jamison stated, “His passion and love for dance has a spiritual fervor” as she shared her admiration for his work ethic and “God given” talent.
In contrast to Jamison, who spoke more about Rushing’s past, Artistic Director Robert Battle discussed his present contributions to the Ailey organization. Battle made it clear that this was not a retirement celebration for Rushing, the company’s Rehearsal Director and first Guest Artist. It was to acknowledge the many accomplishments of this gifted 38-year-old artist. “This is not about celebrating the amount of time he has been here, it is about the quality of time,” Battle reminded the audience. The evening was an invitation to a moving banquet, where the audience dined on Rushing’s favorite dance delicacies.
The program opened with Ronald K. Brown’s Grace. The fact Rushing had been an original member of the 1999 cast made Grace the perfect work to begin the festivities. Grace was Brown’s first work for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and it has retained its artistic dichotomy and strong sense of abstract storytelling fluctuating from ethereal to visceral.
The opening solo danced by Celeste Sims was set to Duke Ellington’s Classic Come Sunday. It functioned as a prelude establishing the movement quality, and phrasing. It also introduced Ailey audiences to what would become Brown’s signature movement and choreographic style. Sims, an artist who possesses of great presence, was in full command of the stage, captivating the audience with her nuanced performance.
The main body of the work is best described as an ensemble of continuously cascading bodies forming and reconfiguring in small groups, with the occasional solo passage. Performed to a music collage, the section is also a study in choreographic clarity and restraint. Brown ingenuously used theme and development/variation to his full advantage. He sparingly constructed and varied movement phrases and jumps; and in the biblical ideal from Matthew: Chapter 14, Verse 19, Brown literally took his five steps and two jumps and satisfied the multitude.
Rushing performed primarily as a member of the ensemble and exuded joyous camaraderie throughout the work. This immediately conveyed his humility and respect for both the choreography and the dancers. The final section returned to the Come Sunday, Jennifer Holliday performed the composition this time. The full ensemble cast created an epilogue. The opening section had been a prayer for the future; but the finale was a declaration of the present.
Ailey’s Pas De Duke was choreographed for ballet’s most acclaimed danseur noble, Mikhail Baryshnikov; and modern dance’s most recognized performer, Judith Jamison. The work premiered on August 10, 1976 in the Lincoln Center’s State Theater as part of the opening night gala of Ailey Celebrates Ellington. This six-day festival commemorated the nation’s bicentennial with modern dance and jazz music, America’s two great original art forms.
Rushing and Sims were pure magic. Their strong individual personas and charismatic on stage tête-à-tête embodied the spirit of the work without mimicking the originators. In her 1992 autobiography Dancing Spirit Judith Jamison recalled, “… so many things were to done on an angle. If he choreographed the torso on the angel, that’s way it had to be danced… Misha straightened up most of the things Alvin had put on an angle.” Rushing’s technical brilliance combined a strong understanding and proficiency of both ballet and Horton. His control was offset by his abandon, and this duality created a kinesics excitement that was probably closer to Ailey’s original intent.
In contrast the solo Love Songs was a poignant and personal expression. Choreographed in 1972 by Ailey for Dudley Williams the work is renowned for its lyric expression and uncluttered line. Rushing was able to transcend these qualities with an introspective interpretation that reached beyond the footlights and drew us in.
Home set in the hip-hop infused style of Rennie Harris displayed another facet of Rushing’s versatility. The works outward buoyance is just the facade of a haunting statement on the AIDS pandemic. The subtext reveals a chilling social reality; that becomes increasing evident with each subsequent viewing.
The evening ended with Ailey’s masterwork Revelations. To the company’s credit the overall production value and performance quality this season is better than I have seen in recent history. All roles were danced with a renewed vigor and in some sections with the appropriate risk taking that has enthralled audiences of over fifty years. Rushing was scheduled to dance the solo I Wanna Be Ready, but instead performed the Wade In The Water section.
He was reunited onstage with former Ailey principal Renee Robinson. His role was originally danced by company founder Alvin Ailey, and is one of the cornerstones of the work, encompassing reverent adagio movement, signature Ailey hip roll walks, floor work and catlike jumps. Rushing, Robinson and Linda Celeste Sims were stellar.
Celebrating Matthew Rushing was a fitting tribute to an accomplished artist, who continues to demand his best in every endeavor. The only element that was missing was an excerpt of Rushing’s own choreography. We trust it will be included in a future tribute possibly celebrating his next twenty years.
In Photo: 1) Constance Stamatiou and Matthew Rushing 2 & 4) Matthew Rushing 3) Judith Jamison, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alvin Ailey 5) Rushing and Company 6) Alvin Ailey, Lucinda Ransom, Loretta Abbott
Photo Credit: 1) Gary Friedman 2 & 4) Paul Kolnik 3) Jack Vartoogian 5) James R. Brantley 6) Courtesy Ailey Archives