In a company like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where the celebrated Hope Boykin performed for 20 years, dancers are more often seen than heard onstage. Having retired from that company last year, and now devoting herself more fully to her own work, Boykin is making her voice heard. Not just her choreographic voice, or what she calls “my movement language,” but spoken language, too: inner dialogues turned outward for us to hear.
In “An Evening of Hope” on Thursday at the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan (where Ailey’s “Revelations” had its premiere 61 years ago), the sound of Boykin’s candid, melodic voice wove through the program, relaying personal reflections that become a kind of music. With both urgency and restraint — a tumbling onrush of thoughts, a pointed pause — she swept us into the rhythm of her thinking, the meter of her mind.
The program, presented as part of the Y’s Harkness Mainstage Series (and streaming online through Monday), encompasses five short works dating from 1998 to 2021, thoughtfully knit together. With the exception of the film “About Her. Me.” — a self-portrait of sorts — and a couple of fleeting appearances elsewhere, she is more heard than seen, ceding the stage to six dancers, many of whom are her former students or mentees. Still, “An Evening of Hope” is very much about her journey, about uncovering and stepping into a surer sense of herself.
“Am I enough?” Boykin asks in the opening rumination. In the hour or so that follows, she seems to be affirming, not so much for the audience as for herself: yes. As she puts it: “I must be enough for me before it even matters what you think. Don’t you think?”
Her earliest works come first. In “Again, Ave,” a poignant solo from 1998, Deidre Rogan luxuriates in the music (Leslie Odom Jr.’s recording of “Ave Maria”). In “No, Don’t (Ne Me Quitte Pas),” created at Howard University in 2010, William Roberson and Patrick Coker appear to long for each other from their isolated spotlights. When they fling out their arms atop precise, grounded legs, it’s like they’re shaking off old memories.
Not surprisingly, Boykin’s choreography — which she described in a post-show talk as an amalgam of her many influences at Ailey — feels most distinctive when she is dancing. In the potent “About Her. Me.,” a meditation on moving through the world as a bald, dark-skinned Black woman, she imbues each twist of the hand or scuff of the foot with a quiet vigilance. Filmed among tranquil park pathways, and skillfully edited by Boykin, the work captures her ability to draw out the fullness of a moment, to take her time, even when the steps are quick and the message is pressing.
The notion of taking one’s time returned in “Redefine Us, From the Inside Out,” a trio for Alisha Rena Peek, Martina Viadana and Terri Ayanna Wright from this year, with a simple but ravishing cameo from Boykin toward the end. Mingling with Bill Laurance’s music, her text addresses the struggle and triumph of emerging from emotional low points, reflected in weighted or hesitant movement that turns freer and more electric. “This time is mine to take,” she says, assuring herself that she does not need to move at anyone’s pace but her own. A coda for the full cast, “ … with Your name,” ends with her placing her hands on her heart and gazing up.
In her spirited post-show discussion with her longtime Ailey colleague Matthew Rushing, Boykin said that she was “still digging” when it came to her exploration of movement. The generosity and honesty of “An Evening of Hope” left me hoping she would and looking forward to more, whenever it might arrive.
An Evening of Hope
Performed on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, Manhattan; and streaming through Monday; 92y.org.