Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Credit: Andrew Eccles

As the lights came up on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater‘s production of Petite Mort, somebody in the audience whooped. “Ow!!”

In all the times I’d seen Hubbard Street Dance Chicago perform Jiri Kylian’s 1991 dance, that had never happened. The music is by Mozart, and Czech choreographer Kylian—now head of the world-renowned Netherlands Dance Theater—encased the work in a crisp shell of restraint. It looks antiquated. The men wield fencing foils; the women batten down the hatches in armored ball gowns.

But beneath that restraint, yeah, the dance is about sex. “Petite mort” is French for getting off. What we saw on opening night of AAADT’s Chicago engagement were six supremely buff and apparently naked men, their backs to us, holding swords. That audience member merely verbalized our subconscious “Hallelujah!” And, in the context of an AAADT performance, the piece’s golden designs and sculptural shapes, especially the arched “flying” arms, called to mind Alvin Ailey’s 1960 classic Revelations—though in Petite Mort, the destination is heaven on earth.

Thank you, Robert Battle. Since arriving in July 2011, AAADT’s new artistic director—only its third since 1958—has made curatorial choices that redefine its universe, adding works outside the boxes of “African” and “American” in still-small but unprecedented numbers. Over the years the troupe has performed a handful of pieces by such well-known white Americans as Twyla Tharp, David Parsons, and “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage. But last season alone, Battle introduced both Arden Court (1981), by Paul Taylor, the classic old white guy of American modern dance, and Minus 16 (1999), by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

Like Petite Mort, a company premiere for AAADT, Minus 16 (performed here again this year) gains new force and meaning before an African-American audience. Both works are packed with witty surprises, made for laughter and applause. Moreover, during one extended, affectionate scene, Minus 16 brings audience members onstage to dance. These dances satisfy the need for audience participation—a prominent feature of the African-American performing arts, maybe because of the call-and-response form of field songs, maybe because of the way storefront churchgoers testify. They’re inspired repertory choices. You can’t have a conversation about race without getting everybody in the same room. That’s something AAADT has always done well, and Battle’s battle plan promises to further that not-insignificant achievement.

Kyle Abraham’s Another Night (2012), the newest piece in the massive jigsaw puzzle of AAADT’s repertory, appeals in a more familiar way. Apparently intoxicated by his ten dancers’ unassailable technique, Abraham, 35, has filled this piece with high kicks, towering extensions, and impossibly cantilevered jazz layouts. He said, “Jump!” and the dancers asked, “How high?” A favorite move: bounding leaps punctuated by the exclamation mark of a big, fat, flexed-foot kick.

The upbeat community of Another Night, dressed in eye-popping candy colors, is out for a good time. But a couple of elements set this dance apart from the AAADT usual. One is the sophistication of the music: “A Night in Tunisia” by Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. The other is the impulse to step outside the party. An angular opening solo, performed in silence, suggests a searching mind. And a staggering, jittery male solo—the piece’s highlight—recalls an African-American dance trope seldom seen in AAADT works. Eleo Pomare’s 1965 “The Junkie” was arguably the first dance in this angry vein, with a descendent in hip-hop’s “drunken” style. The same walk can be played for laughs, as it is here.

Battle’s own Strange Humors, a 1998 male duet, is, like many of his works, a cultural hybrid. You can hear African drumming, Middle Eastern harmonies, and gypsy jazz in John Mackey’s original score. Meanwhile the dancers are like twin strands of a DNA molecule gone berserk. Though they sometimes intertwine or mirror each other, they’re more apt to break apart, colliding and competing in African-style dance battles and insane acrobatics of the sort never seen at the Olympics.

As usual, Ailey’s ur-dance, Revelations, concludes every program. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this piece, which is emblematic of AAADT’s particular aesthetic. This time I noticed its celebration of weakness, expressed in the lyrics of its gospel songs and in such danced sections as “Fix Me, Jesus” and “I Wanna Be Ready.” The paradox is that, in Ailey’s choreography, conveying humility requires superhuman strength.

The Ailey company is now such a strong institution—in every way—that it can afford to take risks. Battle’s stance seems to be that, if AAADT is doing it, it’s African-American. That kind of confident self-identity gives the company an unprecedented artistic freedom. The next step would be to expand its emotional and cultural range by exploring the downbeat.