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at the Arie Crown Theater

April 19-23

Alvin Ailey didn’t give us much that was new this year, but the old news was good. I saw two distinctly different programs, one an all-Ailey evening in which the most recent work was nearly 20 years old, the other a showcase for three other choreographers in which the oldest work was seven years old. The babies and grown-ups of the repertory, you might say. Some of the babies are coming along nicely, but the grownups, naturally enough, tend to stand head and shoulders above them.

It’s no mean feat to have headed an American nonballet company that’s into its second generation. And Ailey is a distinctly American choreographer, someone who was combining ballet, modern, and jazz idioms decades ago. The all-Ailey evening was meant to demonstrate his diversity, and it did. Opus McShann (1988) and For Bird–With Love (1984) were originally scheduled but had to be canceled when a dancer broke his leg. The substitutions were Masekela Language (1969) and Revelations (1960).

Streams (a revival of a 1970 work) opened the evening. It shows Ailey at his most abstract: the choreography is closely tied to the music, a vaguely oriental work for percussion ensemble, Eight Inventions by Czech composer Miloslav Kabelac. The dancing seems vaguely oriental too, the dancers sometimes resembling Indian gods and goddesses, arms and legs akimbo. But I think Ailey was also setting himself an abstract problem, one related to the puzzle solved by the composer: How do you make music from individual percussive noises? How do you make dance from a series of poses? The mundane but appropriate image is to “connect the dots,” and the dancers did seem to be streaming through long fluid phrases occasionally punctuated by striking briefly held poses. But Ailey is not a very abstract choreographer, and by its end Streams becomes much more dramatic; in the final three sections the dancers often pair off, and certainly they register more emotion than at first.

Masekela Language is thoroughly theatrical. The characters and situation–barflies in a nightclub, perhaps in South Africa, perhaps in south Chicago–give this dance its clearest impetus, although certainly the characters are shaped by the score, which is based on the music of Hugh Masekela. In this strongly political work a bored, angry, alienated crowd fight among themselves, make love, try religion as an outlet for their feelings. They’re only really brought together when a man–who is both the direct victim and the avenger of the oppression they all suffer–rushes in, bloody and beaten. He briefly rallies them to the cause, but when he falls, they all return to their original anomie, stepping heedlessly over his body.

Revelations communicates Ailey’s religious feeling. This 30-year-old gem has many facets, but several stood out during this performance. One was simply the choice of music, spirituals and gospel songs whose repeated words are less like lyrics than like poetry purified of meaning–you hear the sound and the rhythm, not the sense (the sense becomes merely the starting point). When Dudley Williams dances his solo to “I Want to Be Ready,” the way the singer draws out the first and suddenly drops the last syllable of “ready” echoes not only our everyday pronunciation but the dancer’s repeated protracted reaching and quick collapses.

Also striking was Ailey’s use of hands. He takes what we think of as a jazz hand–palms to the audience, fingers outstretched and stiff–and gives it a whole new meaning, especially in “I Been Buked,” the opening section of Revelations. Here the hand is not an oddity of style but an expression of protest and search. Occasionally such outstretched hands move as if feeling a barrier, groping from the bottom to the top of the dancer’s invisible cell like a lizard’s delicate feet moving up the sides of a glass cage. Wrists are crossed as if manacled; a dancer, stiff-armed, clasps his two hands together as if chained or praying or both. And in the solo to “I Want to Be Ready,” the dancer poised on the apex of his buttocks and lifting his arms and legs and head to heaven is like a cupped hand opening and closing in supplication.

One of the best things about Ailey is his obvious care for continuity. In his own dances, he pays tribute to black musicians of all stamps; as artistic director of a well-established company, he’s generous to lesser-known choreographers. On Thursday evening, the Ailey troupe offered Talley Beatty’s The Stack-Up (1982), Ulysses Dove’s Bad Blood (1986), and Donald Byrd’s Shards (1988).

Shards, one of two Chicago premieres in this year’s engagement, was disappointing. The music, a commissioned score by Mio Morales, is fake avant-garde and much less challenging than Kabelac’s Eight Inventions, which was first performed in 1965. In what seems an attempt at modernity, Morales’s music occasionally slows like a record on a turntable that’s rotating unevenly. But the music still doesn’t sound new–and it’s too mushy for a piece whose title evokes broken glass. The dance’s lifts are occasionally inelegant, occasionally artificial, occasionally both. Although the high extensions–one leg raised in a long tapering point almost parallel to the dancer’s upright body–are rather shardlike, that image doesn’t connect with anything else in the piece but lies in dead, scattered bits.

Beatty’s The Stack-Up is in Ailey’s theatrical vein. It starts as a “good times” piece full of recognizable urban characters but evolves into a parable about the destructiveness and near inevitability of drugs in urban black culture. The pusher, played by David St. Charles, is like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: for the dance to work, he must seem a destructive, ironic, but darkly attractive force. St. Charles managed to be threatening, elegant, comic, and pathetic all at once.

The evening’s standout, however, was Dove’s Bad Blood, a drop-dead number full of the dynamic contrasts sometimes lacking in Ailey’s own choreography. I was worried about the music–three works by Laurie Anderson, who seems to me derivative–but it gave Dove a sufficiently interesting rhythmic base, and that was enough.

Bad Blood is sensual, atavistic, full of energy. When a woman clenches her fists, they’re clenched right to the backbone, the muscles of the arms and back taut but fluid, ready for a fight. In the solo that opens the work (danced by Andre Tyson), the man briefly strokes his own thigh in a gesture at once narcissistic and full of longing. In the mating-dance duet, the man and woman take turns making themselves big, like birds puffing out their feathers but using their legs, forming gigantic triangles or, crouching on a bench, diamonds. Bad Blood’s lifts and daring leaps and catches are natural, even rough–you see the energy, not the “effortlessness” and pretty finish so often affected in dance.

Bad Blood has a kind of story, too–something about a man left out who eventually gets his girl–but it’s not very important. The images that serve it are; in the most affecting, the man catches his leaping partner by clasping her around the buttocks. She has her back to us, so what we see are her small buns cradled in a man’s large, powerful arms. She’s the child to his adult, and it’s an image of such absolute mutual possession that we understand in our blood and bones what it means to be excluded.

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