As American as Alvin Ailey, as Ailey-an as "Revelations." Although the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is rightly famous for rousing jazz numbers drawing on the heritage of American blacks, its current repertory is more diversified than the popular image would have one believe. Performing at the City Center through May 24, the company has several new works that show the dancers moving in many different directions.
Todd Bolender's "The Still Point," for example, is best known as a dramatic vehicle for ballet troupes. It was a staple of the New York City Ballet in the 1950s and has since graced the repertories of many regional ballet companies. Now it shows up in a modern-dance group looking as fresh and lyrical as ever. If "The Still Point" has a different accent in the Ailey troupe, it's not because the dancers' modern-dance training overwhelms the soft, balletic airs of Bolender's dance. It's simply a difference of interpretation of the story.
"The Still Point" tells in almost muted fashion the tale of a troubled girl, a loner unable to establish ties with her peers. Finally, the "right" gentleman appears in her life. In an extended duet, the girl's turbulence slowly melts away as the man calmly and gently pursues her. Their final embrace bespeaks a happily-ever-after ending.
What tranforms this insipient soap opera into an appealing love story is Bolender's impressionistic style of choreography, in which emotions are hinted at rather than crudely laid out. This approach is beautifully in accord with the music, Debussy's string quartet.
Without losing the dance's essential lyricism and soft-spokenness, the Ailey dancers emphasize conflict. Donna Wood shows us a girl as much an outcast as she is a loner, as rejecting as she is rejected. Her would-be friends are confused by her behavior, but also openly hostile at some points. One might prefer "The Still Point" to be drawn in paler colors, but the dance still remains remarkably lyric given the Ailey dancers' forceful projection.
Another untypical direction of the Ailey company is toward avant-garde music. This season features the company premiere of Elisa Monte's "Treading," to a score by Steve Reich, whose repetitive "trance" music is one of the most fashionable manifestations of the avant-garde. Shrewdly, Monte tunes in to the sensuousness of the music rather than what might be described as a never-ending drone of chords and rhythms.
"Treading" shows two dancers slinking through the sound as animals might slither through the forest, or as water plants might undulate in the depths of a lake. Even when the dancers are still, they seem to be moving. The effect is as lulling as the music. As for myself, I'd rather be stimulated than lulled, but there's no arguing with the calm precision and sensual sheen of the two panther-dancers. Sarita Allen and Alistair Butler are hot stuff, and they got a deserved o vation from the audience.