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 The Prodigal Prince comes to life

Alvin Ailey dancers showcase Geoffrey Holder’s grand vision

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New York, USA - The arresting presentation of Geoffrey Holder’s The Prodigal Prince unfolds in full flight during the 2010 New York Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) season at New York’s City Center.  Created as a tribute to Haitian artistry, the production celebrates Haitian painter and Vodou priest Hector Hyppolite whose genius Geoffrey Holder holds in high esteem. “He [Hyppolite] is the Picasso of Haitian Art,” says Holder.

The hauntingly resonant voices that chant soul-stirring calls to which drums rumble a slow, deep response herald the regal entrance of the goddess Erzulie (AAADT’s Briana Reed) hand in hand with St. John the Baptist (AAADT’s Clifton Brown).   Together they would “conduct” rituals symbolized in rhythmic dance rooted in Haitian lore, tradition and mysticism, as their spiritual energies converge on their focus - Haitian Hector Hyppolite -  danced on the Prodigal Prince’s inaugural evening by AAADT’s Kirven James Boyd. 

Boyd compellingly dramatizes the imbuing of the genius ‘spirit’ in Hyppolite under the spiritual development of Erzulie and St. John the Baptist.  The ballet’s premise is based on the transition to and beginning of Hyppolite’s enlightened journey as an artist, with images to be brought to life wrought with the feather given to him by Erzulie and John.

Goddess Erzulie in the Prodigal Prince

Dancer Briana Reed herself conveys the sensuality she needs to evoke within Hyppolite and awaken his artistic traits, while retaining her partial “untouchability” as  Erzulie, Vodoun priestess/Black Madonna.  Brown as St. John the Baptist portrays well with his body language, the role of protector, and wise and spiritual elder who both gifts and guides Hyppolite to the next phase in his life.

The supporting cast of dancers fill their required molds with dexterity.  Whether called upon to ornately prepare and complete the scenes for the beginning of Hyppolite’s metamorphosis, whirling with driven and hypnotic abandon, or forming a brilliantly-colored spiritual “shield” about either of the three principals in the ballet, the AAADT company embodies the spirit of the piece.

The stage is the canvas on which choreographer Geoffrey Holder unleashes in color and movement, chants and drums - the Prodigal Prince ballet on the audience.  Holder’s daring eye as an artist himself gives rise to the bold and dramatic black, pure whites, deep reds, burnished oranges, virginal blue and other brilliant colored costuming that complete the multi-dimensional fantasy journey on which he takes the audience for just over thirty minutes. 

In the Prodigal Prince Holder is unabashed in acknowledging the sexuality existing within human nature, the beauty of the human form and its expression through dance - and the connection of both with spirituality.  Recognizing the vibrant unapologetic expression of raw sensuality that characterizes and completes the human soul and its potential for creativity, Holder ensured that this was placed front and center most visually within the “vessel” that was Hyppolite, by both Erzulie and St. John the Baptist.  Oh, did we mention that Holder leaves nothing to chance, and also composed the music that both provides the track for the ballet, and simultaneously commands and propels the aural sensibilities of the audience?

Hyppolite & St. John the Baptist in the Prodigal Prince

The story of the gifting of a feather to Hyppolite in a dream where he meets St. John the Baptist in a journey to Africa (with which Hyppolite goes on to create internationally sought-after paintings), was an irresistible one to bring to the stage in dance, and one which the internationally-renowned Holder snapped up.  The inclusion of the Vodoun priestess Erzulie was a natural for Holder, given Hyppolite’s own background as a Vodoun priest.  The artist first brought his visionary “Prodigal Prince” to the stage in 1968, with the legendary and incomparable Judith Jamison in the role of Erzulie and Miguel Godreau dancing the role of Hyppolite. 

Geoffrey Holder
Geoffrey Holder

The audience rose to its feet when two-time Tony Award winner Holder - now walking with the assistance of a cane - made his appearance on stage after the production.  When he twirled said cane and relinquished it for a few brief moments, and himself danced a few unassisted steps, the audience simply went wild with applause.

On its inaugural evening, the Prodigal Prince was preceded on stage by Uptown, a dance showcase based on the Harlem Renaissance period and created by Matthew Rushing.  With the choice of some of the icons highlighted who personified the face of Harlem - Paul Robeson, W.E. Dubois, Josephine Baker, Count Basie et al - the inherent reminder (through dance and well-placed periodic narration), is that amid the genius artists and infectious gaiety that were the Harlem experience, the struggle is never far below the surface.  The determination to survive that is culturally intrinsic to Harlem was splendidly laid bare in a blur of color throughout, for example, during the “Rent Party” segment in Uptown.  The dancers exuberantly dare anyone to defy the joie de vivre of Harlem, still claimed even as they dance their way against the odds to muster enough for yet another tribulation - making ‘the rent.’

Revelations rounded out the evening’s three productions.  Showcased on six contents and through seventy-one countries, the production is the hallmark Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater experience, and this night was no different.  The company of dancers symbolically shoulders concerns and burdens, and expresses times of joy and exhilaration, to all of which the audience can relate.  They communicate that their experience is not only a “Black” one, but moreover the story of life, and as such they empathize with one’s emotions and trials as fellow human beings.  In dance sequences complemented by a soundtrack of negro spirituals the audience is connected through vicarious visuals, with the gamut of experiences that is human existence.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 2010 New York season is ongoing at the New York City Center on West 55th Street and runs through January 2, 2011.  Geoffrey Holder’s production of the Prodigal Prince is slated to take the stage four more times on December 21, 23, 26 and January 2.  The opportunity to experience this excellent artistic celebration based on Haitian legacy is one not to be missed.

When Steel Talks is pleased to have been invited to review the Prodigal Prince at the invitation of Geoffrey Holder, recently interviewed for bringing the first steelband to the Broadway stage.

Related article:
The Greatness that greatness demands - The Prodigal Prince Returns with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - Geoffrey Holder and Judith Jamison

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