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Alvin Alley American Dance Theater.


The passionate, exuberant dancing of the Ailey company in the premiere of Love Stories exemplified the mood of this season, one that celebrated the completion of its spanking new building and the generous leadership of many within the Alley community. Choreographed by artistic director Judith Jamison with Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, Love Stories begins simply with a lone male dancer improvising under a bare light bulb. Tentative beginnings--a metaphor for the company, perhaps--amplify into a dynamic solo buoyed by Stevie Wonder's recording of "If It's Magic." Dancers spill onto the stage, trading greetings, stretching alone or rehearsing partnering skills in playful competition. The full-bodied propulsion that marks the Ailey style accelerates. Ailey's own words, some opinion and some philosophy, heard in barely audible voice-overs, drift over the music.

Then a hip hop sensibility gradually transforms the music and dancing. Clearly this is Harris' contribution. Sneakers and sweats replace rehearsal wraps as dancers criss-cross the stage, alternating the liquid progression of impossible acrobatics with fragmented isolations of muscles and joints in a rhythmic symphony. The pace decelerates momentarily for another wonderful male solo, this time with the dancer's undulating torso held parallel to the floor but pushing forward with unyielding grace. Others follow his linear path, and when the choreography evolves into unmistakable geometric designs, it is apparent that Battle has taken over. The dancers, now in bright orange-and-yellow jumpsuits, raise their arms, fists tight for emphasis, exhibiting not so much defiance as insistence. After a lone female dancer repeats the opening solo, the dancers join hands to face a backdrop of suddenly illuminated light bulbs.

David Parsons provided two works for the company: Shining Star, a new dance costumed in smart white outfits by Ann Hould-Ward and set to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, and Caught (1982), his ubiquitous, strobe-enhanced solo. Shining Star, which was favored with live accompaniment for its premiere, is the kind of romp at which the Alley dancers excel; Parsons posed no new challenges. In the group sections couples break out into the spotlight, each outdoing the next in riffs on every imaginable social dance. The central romantic duet is a generic adagio punctuated by stillness; in sculptured poses the dancers seem to take emotional stock of one another. In a singular section the men create a physical conversation by flapping their white coattails with great style. In Caught, the strobe flashes capture the male soloist magically suspended in the air. At this performance (with Clifton Brown) the audience went nuts.

Donald Byrd did offer the company a challenge in his bittersweet parody, Burlesque (2002). Here the dancers have something to sink their theatrical teeth into: showy characterizations that avoid cliche because of Byrd's attentive pacing and sense of form. Against a garish red curtain lit harshly by a row of footlights, four men and four women decked out in Emilio Sosa's brash burlesque outfits sit expectantly in a row of chairs. Some are hyped and ready, others are doleful, and one needs the bottle for assistance as they wait for their moment in the spotlight. What ensues is a little bit of bedlam, as the dancers confront, seduce, and engage the audience, while flirting and tussling with each other. The piece ends much as it began, with feather boas scattered and wigs in disarray but yielding a balance of hope and resignation.

In every performance this season the dancers exhibited astonishing technical virtuosity and emotional involvement. It seems unfair to single out any particular dancer, but OK--Clifton Brown. What compelling, understated performances this man gives. But in works such as Burlesque, complexities in the choreography give the dancers opportunities for nuanced performances that go beyond mere skill. Two showings of Burlesque were radically different because the material allowed the dancers to express their individuality. It is not just a matter of characterization.

Battle's Juba (2003) is "pure" dance, a driving, relentlessly inventive quartet that travels the full range of folk dance from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In such fertile choreography, the dancers blossomed and revealed new dimensions of themselves. In the female role, Hope Boykin and Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, two very different dancers, each gave clarity to the complexities of the physical and spatial design. Boykin allowed her natural buoyancy to propel her, while flashing limbs carried Fisher-Harrell.

The perpetual search for choreography that matches the talents of its dancers is not unique to the Ailey company. But now that it has shown leadership in acquiring the security of a home for its school and company, it could direct its energies to bringing the best choreographic talent to its dancers.

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Article Details
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Author:Thom, Rose Anne
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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