COMING to terms with the loss of a loved one ranks, in art as in life, among the most timeless of themes. Yet it remains a difficult subject, sometimes arousing too much sentiment and too little introspection.
Two new dances celebrating Alvin Ailey, who died four years ago this month, come close to setting the balance straight. What is more, they suggest that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and its artistic director, Judith Jamison, have resolved a vexing question: How can they remain true to Ailey while forging an identity of their own?
The answer, judging from one of the new dances, entails placing Ailey's work in a broader historical and cultural context. This is the approach that Jamison takes with ``Hymn.''
Ailey tended to portray the black experience, as he did in ``Revelations'' and ``Blues Suite,'' of the American South during the 1930s and '40s. ``Hymn,'' while alluding to these compositions, is more expansive. Like the score, a synthesized arrangement by Robert Ruggieri, Jamison's choreography is both primal and futuristic. She traverses Ailey's roots, and her own, back to Africa and sets the dancers in sync with percussive polyrhythms. She then propels the company forward into an unnamed cosmopolitan future marked by angular movements and spiraling configurations.
IN weaving together these seemingly disparate strains, past and future, Jamison places Ailey somewhere near the center of a choreographic continuum. Ailey could not have asked for a kinder gesture.
More conspicuous than the dancing, however, is a monologue by actress Anna Deavere Smith. Known for combining reportage with performance art, Smith culled her material from interviews with the company's dancers and directors.
Dudley Williams, who joined the company in 1964, told her about a missed opportunity. Shortly before his death, Ailey made a veiled suggestion that Williams work more closely with him. As Williams curls his body and grasps at the empty air, Smith gives voice to his anguish: ``I said, `No, Alvin, I want to dance.' He said to me, `You know I'm going to die soon.' I said, `Oh Alvin, please.' I didn't know he was delivering a message.''
Smith delivers her lines while weaving between the dancers, sometimes mimicking their steps and gestures as well as their words. Renee Robinson circles after her at one point like a dog chasing its tail. But there are times when Smith's monologue distracts from the dancing, and when her inflections and stutters resemble parody more than imitation.
There are, similarly, moments in ``Hymn'' when dance cedes the stage to theater, when art verges on entertainment, and when eulogy approaches idolatry. Particularly seductive is the pulsing synthesized voice that chants ``Alvin... Alvin... Alvin'' while the dancers lose themselves in a frenzied ancestral beat. Ailey, a humanist from the rural south, might have blanched at such digitized fanfare.
``Hymn'' succeeds, in spite of these shortcomings, chiefly on the artistic merits of its choreography. By reaching boldly into the past as well as the future, Jamison has both kept Ailey's spirit alive and made his company her own.
The other new dance featured in the company's 35th anniversary is ``Jukebox for Alvin,'' choreographed by Garth Fagan. Sampling music and movement from several continents, ``Jukebox'' plays like a soundtrack to one of the company's extensive tours. Ultimately it returns to Ailey's home for a sassy, thigh-slapping Texas line dance.
The most polished segment in ``Jukebox'' is the opening solo, a classical piece set to a somber Dvorak nocturne and performed impeccably by Desmond Richardson. Richardson, more than anyone else in the Ailey company, shows himself to be at ease with Fagan's difficult and distinctive choreography. He handles interludes of nuanced stillness as capably as kinetic bursts of energy. During a pair of stag leaps he seems to pause in mid-flight, frozen in both time and space.
The solo, subtitled ``Present Absence,'' concludes with Richardson walking slowly toward the audience. The lights go out just as he reaches the edge of the stage, but in the sudden darkness it takes a moment for eyes to adjust. This phenomenon causes Richardson's image to hover momentarily over the orchestra pit, as if to say, for Ailey, ``I am still here among you.''
The three remaining segments - ``Present Past,'' ``Absence Absence,'' and ``Version of Hope'' - venture well beyond the lexicon of ballet. They feature larger ensembles dancing to eclectic selections of Indian, country-western, and hip-hop music.
The Ailey company performs these segments with abundant wit and vigor, but they do not always display the patience and subtlety that Richardson lends to his solo. At times they seem eager to skip over Fagan's characteristic pauses and rush ahead with the next step.
Fagan concludes on a hopeful note, with a trio extending their legs upward. But in contrast to another of his recent dances, ``Draft of Shadows,'' the lights do not fade until the dancers return to a standing position and walk offstage. Fagan seems to be saying there is something else after the dance is over.
In this way ``Jukebox,'' like ``Hymn,'' summons the tenderness for which Ailey is remembered.
* The Ailey company will perform `Jukebox for Alvin' on Dec. 29 and `Hymn' and `Jukebox for Alvin' together on Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 at New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.