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ALA Dance
ALA Dance, a new contemporary troupe, made its debut last weekend with performances at the B Complex. (Photos by Ann Mancuso)

Review: ALA Dance debuts with powerful program exploring grief and loss

Grief. Anger. Athleticism. And lots of body contact. The inaugural, contemporary dance concert by ALA Dance at the B-Complex on Friday was steeped in all four. Artistic director Atarius Armstrong spoke at the outset, dedicating the evening to his father, who recently died. The numbness of grief was palpable in Armstrong’s new Mr. Princess, which opened the program. Grief and anger were both evident in his powerful duet 1221. Completing the program were Armstrong’s new Wave . . . or What I Would’ve Liked to Tell You, Dominique Kinsey’s Come Back and the percussive Exhale, created by Sarah Stokes and the dancers. 

In Mr. Princess, the five dancers’ somber entrance featured one passive, emotionless dancer in the center of the group. The others gently pushed and eased her across the stage. The four women and one man all wore long black skirts. The image of one passive individual being carried or supported was a predominant theme throughout, as if the person’s will to move or express had been worn away by grief, but the community was there to lift up, carry and support them. One striking image was that of two dancers standing with another dancer sitting on his or her shoulders. At the end, one kneeling woman was left alone onstage.

Come Back and 1221 both premiered at Fly on a Wall’s Excuse the Art series in April. 1221 opened with Leah Kelly and Kaleb Mitchell standing at the front of the stage. We heard a few spoken words — “George Floyd . . .” “This will get worse before it gets better . . .” among them — then the familiar opening notes of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. This slow, melodic piece has become America’s semiofficial mourning music. It’s been played for presidential funerals and in countless movies, including Platoon. Each lift, lunge, stamp and clenched fist was amplified by the mournful rise and fall of the strings. It was a great choice for 1221, even though the intensity of the duet and the sounds of the dancers’ feet threatened to overwhelm it at times. 

Armstrong’s choreography expressed a deep sadness colored by muted anger and weariness, most evident when the dancers took turns carrying each other. While technically strong enough to do each slow lift with ease, the dancers’ careful, attentive partnering allowed us to see what it takes to carry another person, physically and emotionally — the weight, the responsibility. Kelly and Mitchell are powerful dancers, strong, trusting, deeply in tune with one another. At the end, Kelly sat on the floor cradling Mitchell’s head in her lap, a modern-day Pietà. (I Googled the number 1221. It seems to have biblical and spiritual significance, from being grateful for life to getting spiritual guidance from a guardian angel.) 

ALA Dance
Leah Kelly and Kaleb Mitchell performed artistic director Atarius Armstrong’s “1221,” and beautifully conveyed the piece’s strong emotional foundation.

Wave . . . or What I Would’ve Liked to Tell You began with six dancers in a tight group. They gradually broke away but came together in formations several times, sometimes clinging to one another. In the Q&A session that followed the performance, Armstrong said he had wanted to portray the value of community in the piece. He succeeded. In one compelling section, the dancers walked across the stage in a line stretching from downstage to upstage, each taking a turn to break away and then return to the line. Armstrong describes his work as storytelling, but it’s not traditional narrative. What he creates is athletic, abstract movement imbued with deep feeling. A powerful combination. 

Guest choreographer Dominique Kinsey brought in four of her own dancers for Come Back, which featured rhythm, unison and harmony. At one point the dancers, in white shirts, black shorts and socks, reached one arm upward, perhaps in yearning. At another time they gestured as if brushing something off their shirts. Compared with the other works, the quartet had less emotional tension and ended suddenly, as if not quite finished. 

Exhale, performed by Stokes and the ALA dancers, was dominated by Xay Zoleil’s original score. Its discordant, mechanical sounds brought to mind alarms, hammers, gunshots. One standout movement phrase was that of the dancers’ fast and tiny steps, like ballet bourées, while their hands were at waist height, fingers shimmying in place. Another movement theme was hands covering faces. The work was full of tension — was it fear, panic? — and ended in eerie silence. Atlanta Dance Collective will present Exhale again Saturday and Sunday (July 24–25) at KEMRON Environmental Services’ industrial space on  Ellsworth Industrial Boulevard.

The B-Complex is a large, empty warehouse space with a concrete floor and no theatrical lighting. ALA Dance brought in minimal but effective lighting, a wood floor covered in Marley and portable wing flats, creating a proscenium-like stage. And they needed that wood floor. All five pieces featured highly athletic vocabulary, even back flips. As for pandemic precautions, the audience was expected to socially distance and most were masked, but none of the dancers wore masks even though four of the five works contained extensive contact and partnering.

The ALA Dance program ran almost two hours, including an intermission, something many companies eschewed during the pandemic to make their programs shorter and safer for the audience. Overall, the evening was another welcome step toward normalcy in the dance world.