Alvin Ailey reaches for new audiences
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a wide-open, accessible style. The warmth and immediacy of performers presented as people, not just dancers of great strength and prowess, have kept audiences coming back for 25 years.
The company continues to dance ''Revelations,'' a 1960 pageant of gospel music and jazz dance. Charged with jubilation and action-packed, it still rouses audiences. But the company has branched out to works by other choreographers, few of whom can bring off that kind of a dance. Looking more sophisticated, the troupe still has that old warmth and theatricality. The question is, who is choreographing outlets for that bubbling jazz spirit in these more solemn times?
Ailey's own choreography has become more lyrical. The dancers are respectful of his ''Landscape,'' a lush and densely populated piece that moves to the music of Bela Bartok. But ''Landscape'' is still solidly rooted in his barefooted jazz style, though gentler and more reflective. For the company it's a perfect fit.When it tries on other dances, the results are intriguing.There is an occasional misfit.
''Fontessa and Friends'' is a big, ridiculous party of a dance choreographed by Louis Johnson to tunes by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Scott Joplin, among others. It's full of funny characters the dancers take on with relish. Fontessa , a woman of spindly hauteur danced by April Berry, struts around the stage in evening clothes like a peacock, only to be interrupted by raucous, rude laughter. Men wearing white ruffs around their ankles, wrists, and necks, white caps, and long, billowing white skirts burst on the scene and bounce rather aggressively through ragged takeoffs on classical ballet.
One flees, arms extended, in the style of the denizens of ''Swan Lake,'' but with head down and slouching, as if he were being dragged by the wrists. Later he extends one foot, folds both hands over it, and bows, in true prima ballerina style - then falls over. You don't get the sense he is making fun of ballerinas. Rather, he seems to have come from another planet where they don't have ''Swan Lake,'' and to be working earnestly from instructions he doesn't quite understand. Michihiko Oka, a ferociously springy dancer, practically stopped the show in this role.
All the characters remain true to themselves. We enjoy the tenderness of two young lovers even as the ruffled men romp back and forth in front of them. This piece is jubilant, but with a satiric edge. Though goofy, the clown corps was brilliant, fleet, and strong, running into each other and falling down with all their might. The Ailey company has been introducing people to dance for years, and this would be a good first dance for anyone.
Less successful was Hans van Manen's romantic ''Songs Without Words,'' a series of duets that sketch relationships. In one, a man pursues a woman, and, as in some of the classic Fred and Ginger routines, we realize she's interested when she suddenly picks up his bounding, turning step. That she is still reserving judgment is obvious; she dances everything just after him instead of in unison.
Maxine Sherman dances in the possessive grasp of Rodney Nugent. When she leaps, he pulls back on her arm, so that the leap goes backward. A series of lifts looks like elegant scuffles. Finally, she walks out of his arms and off stage. He stands, literally empty-handed, for a long moment. Suddenly, she dances in backward and they leave together.
Van Manen choreographs elegantly, but his romanticism works better in contrast to the spiky coolness of a more formal ballet company like the Netherlands Dance Theatre, which he used to direct. Every quaver and turn of the head is there in the choreography, leaving nothing to the dancers but to follow instructions. The Ailey Company always acts, not putting on roles as much as putting across dances. It danced brilliantly, but what was needed was distance, not warmth. The choreography's hard edge was blurred.
''Treading,'' by Alicia Monte, is a smooth, abstract, but physically demanding duet and the company does it, and her more bumptious ''Pigs and Fishes ,'' beautifully. Another nice twist for the personable, physical Ailey style was provided in a post-modern piece by Bill T. Jones, ''Swamp Fever.'' Five men moved to the driving rhythm of Peter Gordon's ''Intervallic Expansion,'' making a new move for each beat. Dancers hopped sideways on stage with arms arced out to the sides Ailey-style, but that was the point of departure. They had their legs crossed at the ankles and heads down. Dressed in baggy pants, caps, and sweat shirts, dancing among dead trees festooned with clear plastic tubing, their presence was ironic, as if street people had survived an apocalypse and being cool still mattered. The dance moved relentlessly, but managed to explore masculinity with irony and tenderness along the way.
There was mock-macho posing as they all hunched down, rotated a shoulder, and made a circle with their fingers. They made hand signals, ran around with loose hips and shrugging shoulders, and lifted each other. When a man lifts a woman, it's usually made to look like an act of heroism. When a man lifts a man in Jones's work, all you notice is someone leaving the ground. The lifter just gives him a hand unobtrusively. It looks tender in a brotherly sort of way.
Though more abstract, the dance used the dancers' individuality, and gave the same ''community'' feeling that Ailey's work puts forth. To the last beats, they hopped into a line, clapping their hands in unison. It was as if a bunch of varied characters had suddenly reached a consensus. It was so energy-charged you felt they should keep moving forward from there, not end the dance.
This short dance, crisp and new (the world premiere was in Los Angeles earlier this month) shows the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at its best, moving forward to new dances and reaching out to new audiences with that old, furious jazz energy.
The company performs today and tomorrow in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Fla.; April 12 at the Carolina Coliseum, Columbia, S.C.; and April 5-10 at the Music Hall in Detroit.