IN the most ambitious of a long string of productions documenting American modern dance, Alvin Ailey has devoted a whole evening to the work of Katherine Dunham. The program, presented six times during the Ailey company's just-ended season at City Center, spans the period, from the late '30s to the early '50s, when Dunham was at her height as a director of revues based on Afro-American dance styles. The Ailey revival program essentially re-creates one of these revues, and for dancing, visual splash, and high-energy entertainment, I'd take it any day over the current Broadway musical scene. More important, it galvanizes the Ailey dancers out of their mechanical glossiness and reveals some hidden talents.
``The Magic of Katherine Dunham'' begins on an unnecessarily technical note, with demonstrations of Dunham's classroom exercises at the barre and across the floor. The leotarded dancers, dramatically lit and pure as athletes, look exactly like the contemporary performers they are. I guess the point is their transformation, through the Latin, Caribbean, and American Negro stylizations to come, into dancing folk.
These more earthy, responsive personas begin to emerge during the exercises as the dancers get spurred on by the drummers at the side of the stage. In fact, a major share of the show's vitality is generated by these four musicians, Gregg Askew, Louis Bauzo, Joe Sircus, and Mor Tiam, who supplement Tania Leon's pit orchestra and sometimes take dancing part in addition to drumming, chanting, and singing.
After the opening proprieties, the show gets down to business, which is a collection of set pieces, skits, and dramatic scenes. Dunham takes authentic dance material from North and South America and the islands and sets it into appropriate narrative or decorative environments. Some are just the dances by themselves, like the Brazilian quadrille ``Choros'' and the American ``Plantation Dances,'' ``Juba,'' and ``Square Dance'' (Gary DeLoatch as the caller, with a parodistically heavy Southern accent).
Others have more elaborate local color settings, like ``Cakewalk,'' based on the strutting competition-dance derived from the Can-Can; ``Flaming Youth,'' a parade of '20s Chicago types, including a slinky Raquelle Chavis singing the blues; and ``Nanigo,'' a series of male variations on a Cuban cult dance.
The most exciting parts of the evening are the fully narrative dances, ``Shango'' and ``L'Ag'Ya.'' Both have to do with folk rites. During the pre-World War II period, Americans were curious about the African-influenced rituals of Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique. Katherine Dunham was one of the first black Americans to study these traditions on location and to bring theatricalized replicas to the stage. ``Shango'' is billed as a ``stylized ceremony.'' We're not told what kind, but it's probably connected with puberty rites. A young man (Dereque Whiturs) sacrifices a chicken and becomes possessed by the snake god. The community members who witness the ceremony dance and shake in frenzied accompaniment to his ordeal.
The story ballet ``L'Ag'Ya'' involves a love triangle in which the thwarted, roughneck suitor (Mr. DeLoatch) visits the Roi Zombie (Dudley Williams) and obtains a magic doll to help him seduce the girl (April Berry) while everyone else is helpless under a spell. Her cleancut boyfriend (Rodney Nugent) wakes up just in time to rescue her but is stabbed by the villainous rival. Williams as the top-hatted, grass-skirted witch doctor was marvelously sinister, with a ghoulish, mocking laugh that resounded electronically - the one time in the show when body microphones paid off.
On the evidence of this anthology, Dunham seems less a choreographer than an expert constructor of showcases for regional dances. She doesn't develop steps or phrases as composed large forms but rather makes them into theatrical showpieces with lavish framing. The tasteful and gorgeous original costumes and sets designed by John Pratt have been reconstructed by Toni Leslie James and Randy Barcelo. Today I think we would call ``The Magic of Katherine Dunham'' a folkloric show, if that term could be applied to black dancing without political stigma. What's so extraordinary is that Dunham did it so well, so early. The Ballet Folklorico of Mexico was founded in 1952, and Igor Moiseyev's Russian troupe didn't visit the United States till 1965.