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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

During the years of Alvin Ailey's decline, and shortly after his death, much of his company's repertoire had a sameness. The dancers were trapped in kicks and grinds, struts and drags. It was sometimes hard to tell one choreographer from another.

The company's recent season appeared blessedly far from that time. In the new productions and in artistic director Judith Jamison's repertoire choices, choreographic individuality was stressed, and the company was challenged by a variety of styles. It embraced them all with polish and aplomb.

The season's most distinctive additions were concerned with emotion deeply etched in action. For example, in Fathers and Sons, a premiere by Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith, there was an episode for a father and his adolescent son sitting side by side on stiff chairs. Their legs nervously crossed and uncrossed; their arms sawed stiffly up and down between their knees. Both gestures conveyed much about their inability to communicate.

Shapiro and Smith have a unique way of making the props look as alive as the people. The action in this witty yet touching glimpse of two generations working things out took place around the frame-work of a house (designed by Chris Muller). As the boys and their fathers, plus two serpentine females (Karine Plantadit-Bageot and Dwana Smallwood), swung through its beams, the house seemed to become an octopus, alternately sucking them in and disgorging them. And yet the effect was not contrived, for the choreographers know how to combine physical daring with an ingratiatingly homespun honesty. Scott Killian also reflected this in his score.

In 1988, choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar created Shelter for six female members of the Ailey company. She has now most successfully set it on six men: Bernard Gaddis, Michael Joy, Troy Powell, Matthew Rushing, Uri Sands, and Michael Thomas.

"I see myself making a wrong turn," drones a voice, as ragged, anonymous-looking men shift about. Individuals begin to explode from the huddle. Junior "Gabu" Wedderburn's percussion effects intensify; the homeless men begin to take on an ancestral dignity, but it soon fades. This version of Shelter proved how valuable time, if well used, can be in the ultimate shaping of a work of art. The dance now penetrates the deepest precincts of both performers and audience.

For Ulysses Dove, sexuality is a gnawing yoke. His Vespers, part of the Ailey repertoire since 1986, tosses a group of women, perhaps nuns or victims (like the daughters of Bernarda Alba), along a path of bridled passion. Vespers is arresting, but less firmly crafted than Dove's Urban Folk Dance. Created in 1990, it was acquired this season by Ailey.

Urban Folk Dance is a maelstrom with the structural discipline of a fugue. It unfolds in two adjacent spaces representing neighboring apartments. Designer Andy Jackness has given the cubicles a Bauhaus spareness. In each room a couple is enmeshed in a tigerish confrontation across a bare table. The lighting by Mark Stanley is inquisitional. Suddenly a member of each couple explodes into the adjacent apartment. New overtones loom. The original couples reunite and continue where they left off. Not a beat is missed, not a single thrust or parry. Both of the casts I saw were true to the brilliant pacing of Urban Folk Dance. They were Plantadit-Bageot, Linda-Denise Evans, Rushing, and Richard Witter; Don Bellamy, Gaddis, Danielle Gee, and Nasha Thomas.

Judith Jamison's Riverside was also a premiere. She seemed to assign herself a dual challenge--to a suggest the carefree antics of a group of Southern rural youngsters and to interweave them with allusions to ancient rituals. The duality was reiterated in Tim Hunter's graceful backdrop of vertical ropes. Kimati Dinizulu's accompaniment was evocative in its use of nature sounds, harmonica, and percussion. The dance energy in Riverside, however, did not flow naturally. As the men roughhoused, or lovers pursued each other, or individuals took turns improvising for their companions, the steps looked structured, rather than discovered.

Donald McKayle's heroic Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder was given a new production. It appeared somewhat underrehearsed. Specifically, I missed the leaden unity of the chain gang members' gait. As the woman of their dreams, Renee Robinson danced with utterly winning simplicity.

The December 12 program celebrated associate director Masazumi Chaya's long tenure with the company. Extending between Memoria and Revelations were five excerpts from early Ailey works. Some were danced by guests, notably Milton Myers, who partnered Marilyn Banks in "Lover's Prayer" from Suite Otis. How deliciously gauche he was as he struggled with the mincing steps of a social dance when he really wanted to sweep her off her feet!

The printed program stated that Donald L. Jonas has permanently endowed Ailey's thirty-five-year-old Revelations. That's like endowing The Nutcracker for a ballet company. It's an enduring investment. Someone should now follow Jonas's example and endow Ailey's Blues Suite, which predates Revelations by two years.

Since Blues Suite was first danced, in 1958, subsequent choreographers have given us all manner of cavorting-in-a-bordello settings. But in this fine work there's nothing sentimental, nothing vulgar. It reveals the rich traits of a gifted young choreographer: invention, wit, mischief, sweetness, and enormous poetic insight. Too bad that Ailey couldn't have stayed young forever. But under Judith Jamison's watchful eye, his company seems to be doing just that.
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Author:Hering, Doris
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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