Cultural Omnibus

When black American choreographer Alvin Ailey grafts his jazz style onto the 19th-century Romantic tradition of the Royal Danish Ballet, the result is lively and joyous -- but somewhat uneven. IF anyone knows how to turn warm, pulsing enthusiasm into ballet, it is surely American choreographer Alvin Ailey. The style of his dance mixes many different strands, but its roots -- expressed in compelling rhythms and airy unaffected artistry, as well as a basic modernity -- belong first to America's south and then to New York. Mr. Ailey's own influential American Dance Theater in New York celebrates its 30th birthday in 1988.

On the face of it, it's hard to imagine a choreography less like Ailey's than that performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. The style and repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet is grounded in the work of August Bournonville, the 19th-century choreographer. His work is European and classical; it epitomizes Romantic ballet -- pretty, magically light, energetic.

But this same Royal Danish Ballet is not averse to sallies into the world of modern dance. So Ailey came to Copenhagen in March to choreograph a new work specifically for the company.

The work is ``Caverna Magica.'' It's named after an album by Swiss composer Andreas Vollenweider, whose evocative music -- surging, whispering, wailing, popping, tinkling, dripping, and thundering -- was the inspiration for the ballet.

I can't remember when I enjoyed a ballet more. This is uncomplicated, accessible dance -- an exotic, exuberant display of inexhaustible movement and iridescent color. ``Caverna Magica'' was rightly made the climax of the evening. It celebrates the coming of spring after a long winter; the plot, as the program says, is ``centered around a young woman, a young man, and a goddess of uncertain origins.'' It was a joyful experience to carry home with you.

In ``Caverna Magica,'' Ailey and Bournonville -- these two entirely different schools of dance, which come from apparently irreconcilable cultures and times -- seemed to share an exceptional ability to convey a simple, brimful joie de vivre.

The evening's performance started, however, with a less successful piece. This was ``The River,'' a 1970 Ailey dance that explores ``the relationship between man, nature, and water'' to the music of Duke Ellington. In this, a conflict of style between classical ballet and modern dance seemed unresolved.

The choreography in ``The River'' includes conscious elements of trained balletic movement -- the ballerina conventionally supported by the comparatively static male dancer, the pointed toe, and so forth. But these ingredients are mixed with Ailey's jazz style. Perhaps the Danish dancers are so well trained in classical technique that it was difficult for them to shift back and forth in a single piece from the style they know so well to the modern movements they are less familiar with. The result was a confusion between lightness and weight -- and in places clumsiness and unintentional humor.

Where Ailey asked for humor the dancers seemed too solemn. Where largeness was needed, these white Europeans, particularly the women, appeared too fine and petite. Ellington's rhythms, scored for orchestra, seemed only to underline this conflict of conventions. It was straitjacketed by the orchestra's stiff playing. When it should have come across charged with steamy southern American emotion, it seemed dispassionate or merely jaunty. The dancers waggled their hips to it neatly and politely when flamboyant syncopation was called for. I wondered if the cultural gap hadn't proved unbridgable.

Then followed a restaging of Bela Bartok's ``Miraculous Mandarin'' as choreographed by Copenhagen-born Flemming Flindt, who was ballet master at the Royal Ballet from 1966 to 1978. It was like an entirely different company. The narrative dramatics and expressionist humor of the choreography was danced with intensity and wit. Its often acrobatic and complex requirements were met with suppleness and precision. The music, staccato and folk-lyrical by turns, was translated by the dance into an expressive visual parallel, and classical technique, though rigorously tested, never dominated. This was strong, modern dance.

The program I saw did not include ``Witness,'' an eight-minute solo written by Ailey for Mette Honningen, whose dancing had deeply impressed Ailey during his time in Copenhagen.

But then came ``Caverna'' and the company was transformed again. No hint remained of difficulty with the Ailey approach. The dancers all seemed tall, willowy, and ebullient. The stage was vigorous with rhythmic movement. The verticality and fastidiousness of classical ballet was nowhere to be seen. Costumes floated and swirled -- light veils of purple, violet, cerise, and peach. The dancers mixed hints of some primeval fertility ritual with fun; they blended grandeur with wit, storm with bright sun, and the whole thing whirled to its resonant close with all the inevitability of Ailey's old magic.

Performances: May 6, 7: ``The River,'' ``Witness,'' ``The Miraculous Mandarin,'' ``Caverna Magica.'' May 15, 17: ``Caverna Magica,'' ``Witness,'' other ballets. May 20, 21: ``Caverna Magica,'' other ballets.

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