at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 7-10

Do you like your sex slick and pseudosacred? Or direct from the rag-and-bone shop? You had your pick on the first evening of Alvin Ailey’s Civic Center engagement last week: The revival of Ailey’s 1973 Hidden Rites, with its otherworldly look and impressionist colors–lavender, rose, pale yellow. Or Ulysses Dove’s very contemporary Episodes (1989), in gritty, grainy black and white.

Variety, within limits, marked all four programs–with the exception of Ailey’s classic Revelations, which appeared three times, no dance was shown more than once. Artistic director Judith Jamison, who stepped into that role following Ailey’s death a little over a year ago, clearly is taking an eclectic approach to programming but with a suitable emphasis on Ailey works.

From the start Hidden Rites made me think of the distant nameless horrors at the heart of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the pitiless sacrifices of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This is Eros as ritual, the center of some pagan form of worship. The dancers are not people but spirits–sex machines. They may play roles, they may fight, seduce, and rape each other, but you have the sense it’s all happening someplace other than on this earth.

I found the impersonal sex tableaux chilling–the participants often victimize each other, and at other times they’re so isolated that sexuality seems more a matter of display than relationship. A man flicks a hand near the base of his spine like a tail, satyrlike. A gesture that starts as a kiss turns into a bite. The first duet in the section called “Of Love” ends with the woman on her back on the floor, the man crouched over her, and her arms and legs curving up to close around him like calipers; I thought of spiders. The second duet in the same section ends with the woman seated astride the man’s hips, pinning him while his torso writhes and his arms and legs wriggle, serpentine, around her. “Of Celebration and Death” features a ritual rape: several men lie supine in a flower pattern around a central woman, who’s picked up and lowered by turn onto each of them by a sinewy spirit in a feathery headdress (a hot-spot role brilliantly danced by Desmond Richardson). She collapses and is carried off by the spirit; is she dead?

One of the most powerful images in Hidden Rites is of the company with their backs to us, each dancer standing alone bumping and grinding and rolling his or her hips in a fierce display of raw sexual power, unmotivated and undirected. The rear view defines and isolates each dancer’s waist and hips, which work in marvelous independence of each other; because we can’t see their faces, the view from behind also separates us from the dancers emotionally.

Dove’s Episodes has its own anonymity–the dancers’ plain black sleeveless tops, pants, and short skirts erase personal differences while they emphasize sex differences. But there’s never any doubt that these are human beings in distinct, if somewhat monochromatic, relationships. Performed to a driving original score by Robert Ruggieri, Episodes kicks off in high gear and stays there. From the moment the first woman makes her entrance by leaping from the wings directly into a man’s arms–pouncing on him, wrapping her legs around his chest and her arms around his head–Episodes is always threatening to hurtle off the track.

The women wear their hair loose in this piece, which adds a certain visual and emotional dimension. Hair is superfluous to the body, a little ad hoc–it floats and swings and gestures with an apparent will of its own. At the same time all that loose hair draws our attention to the women’s humanity, their sexuality and vulnerability. (Elizabeth Roxas has particularly dramatic dark cobwebby stuff hanging to her waist; when it drifts over her face like a veil it both blinds and conceals her.) In fact, the women in Episodes–there are four of them, and five men–get most of the good bits. They’re often helpless, victimized by their own sexuality, but they’re also fiercer than the men–they prove Tiresias’s claim, though here we see what women are willing, or forced by their nature, to pay for their greater pleasure.

Several movement motifs underline female vulnerability. In one, a woman lifted by a man pedals her feet in slow motion as he slowly lowers her; to me the gesture expressed helplessness, a reflex or hopeless attempt, as in swimming, to touch bottom. A woman barely but unexpectedly touched by a man collapses at his feet. One motif–women standing or dancing on half-toe (they’re barefoot)–is introduced by a man and woman embracing. She’s standing on half-toe, legs spread wide, rigid with desire, and he just walks out of her arms. I saw that scenario every time any woman stood on her toes.

A single physical dynamic colors Episodes: the movement alternates between sustained, stretched phrases and phrases so rapid and skittery they’re almost gone before you can catch them. But both express tension, the tension of elastic stretched taut and snapped. Episodes is definitely not a nice dance–it’s not even a fun dance. But it sure packs a hell of a punch.

Lar Lubovitch’s North Star (1978), in an Ailey company premiere on Friday night, packs more of a tap. The Philip Glass score of the same name is gentle and fragile, but in attempting to reproduce those qualities Lubovitch makes North Star merely pallid and monotonous: the choreography captures the music’s flow but ignores most of its definitions. The dancers look like kids pretending they’re skating: they’re frequently joined to one another, holding hands or clasping arms and waists, and their feet skim over the floor in rapid tiny, shuffling steps. As they wash back and forth across the stage, eddying in circles and half circles, they look like the proverbial tempest in a teapot. Only one section captures the eeriness of the music: a solo for a woman (April Berry) that pins her to one spot in a small circle of light. Her hands flit over her head like bats; she whips her arms and torso in circles, replicating in her own body the earlier floor patterns–and whenever her hands or arms dip low, the strange lighting turns her bare flesh a midnight blue.

I’m not sure what devil prompted Jamison to bracket her own Forgotten Time (1989) with two Talley Beatty works, Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot (1960) and The Stack-Up (1983), on Saturday night. If she wanted to contrast the old Ailey company with the new–and incidentally make herself look good–she certainly succeeded. Beatty is all Broadway showmanship, all flash and sizzle–none of it really very hot. The urban soap-opera story and sappy couples of The Stack-Up are especially dated and offensive.

But Jamison has done something unusual for the Ailey company in Forgotten Time: she’s created a quiet dance with the self-effacing performance style of North Star but considerably more emotional power. Performed to the female keening of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, it’s not a man’s view of a woman’s life (like Ailey’s Cry) but a woman’s view of life, period. That’s not common on big stages. Jamison’s slow, organic movement–soft collapses, undulations down and back up, an occasional hand shooting skyward–looks peaceful, plantlike; I thought of agrarian cultures. The repeated gesture of laying one’s cheek on the back of hands touching prayerfully has the egglike smoothness and integrity of a Brancusi sculpture.

There’s also something troubled and mournful about Forgotten Time, a sense that comes mostly from the duets for two men (Dwight Rhoden and Jonathan Riseling). They’re antagonists and friends, possibly enemies, possibly lovers. Almost every connection between them is ambiguous: a blow turns into a lift, a moment of physical support becomes a push away. At one point one man is draped heroically over the other, who kneels on all fours; the first might be a general on his bier.

In Forgotten Time Jamison dares her dancers to stand still onstage, to forget high kicks and a pounding beat and find their own inner rhythms. Nothing expresses this new impulse better than one of the dance’s motifs: from standing the dancer drops slowly almost to his knees, folding himself to balance on the fulcrum of his toes in an almost supine position. It sounds and looks impossible; it’s not, though it must require incredible strength and balance. This is a far more vulnerable move than a high kick, which is merely more or less distant from the floor: despite the dancer’s nearness to the ground during this feat of utter prostration, he can fall. It’s a breathtaking new way to rivet the audience’s attention.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack Mitchell.