at the Shubert Theatre, May 18-22

The 1994 Spring Festival of Dance went out with a bang. Or to be more accurate, with a standing ovation, with dancers and audience laughing and crying. Given all the whooping and woofing, the cheers and applause that concluded not only the final Shubert performance but the one on Friday night, it’s easy to see that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has some die-hard Chicago fans. But what followed the Sunday matinee was a genuine love fest, wildly corny and tender. Ailey’s Revelations was the immediate occasion, but I think Judith Jamison’s new piece on the same program had more to do with the storm.

Hymn is a very strange work, part lesson on dance, part promo for the company, part genuine revelation of the people in it: Anna Deavere Smith’s “libretto,” drawn from interviews with Ailey, current artistic director Jamison, and individual dancers, makes up a good part of the sound track. At first I was offended by all the preaching, by the bald statements and rambling talk. But the things the dancers said, and the way they danced their statements, won me over: a reminiscence about a black dress Jamison once wore, a confession about the anguish caused by the search for “perfection,” a meditation on smiling and wearing masks, a statement of belief about what’s beautiful. Watching Revelations, which immediately followed Hymn, I kept thinking about Jamison’s spiritual dicta, which she got from Ailey: Go to the wall. Go further, try harder. Show us yourself.

The choreography in Hymn is largely forgettable, but much of the dancing was not. We could see Karine Plantadit Bageot’s sunny pleasure in herself in the proud definition she gave her torso; Michael Thomas’s quirky, almost syncopated movements revealed his belief that we’re drawn to the odd dancer because he’s sending us a message. For a lot of reasons Hymn is a very personal work, and in that sense the opposite of the dance that preceded it, Billy Wilson’s The Winter in Lisbon: Wilson’s ideas about what’s sexy, what’s musical, what’s revealing about people are so easy they border on the generic. Yet once again the dancing transcended the choreography and carried it. In fact, only one of the new works on the two programs I saw went beyond the expert and occasionally thrilling to create a choreographic vision.

Vespers. The word itself whispers, calling up cloisters and vows of silence, soft breezes and shuffling feet. So what does Ulysses Dove do with his Vespers, a dance for six women? Sets it to percussion music by Mikel Rouse turned all the way up. Scatters the stage with chairs and has the women bolt out of them at regular intervals like shocked cats. In short, creates a restless, kinetic, bursting dance that communicates almost nothing of the repose we associate with evening worship.

And yet the dance fits with others Dove has done. He gave his Serious Pleasures, created for American Ballet Theatre, an understated religious angle, the sense that one will be punished for pleasures taken. Vespers isn’t punitive in the same way, but it does suggest a harsh, demanding, almost martial religion. Yet however powerful the strictures of religion, they can’t contain the women: another side of Dove’s choreography, a side he revealed in the 1989 Episodes, is incredibly strong and sensual female movement.

Dove is a choreographer who understands contrasts and uses them to surprise and engage us. Vespers alternates between long stillnesses–simply sitting straight-backed in a chair, for instance, hands on knees–and eruptions of movement, a stag leap with head thrown back, say. He understands quirky, subliminal inversions that throw us off balance, tease our understanding: a woman seated on a chair is suddenly lying on her back next to the chair, legs bent and feet placed carefully on the seat as her hands had been on her knees–the same position but surreal and disorienting. Dove understands stage space, molding it with lights and props: the first section is focused by a single chair in a pool of light, while in the second the space is carved by six chairs in a line on one side and six chairs scattered on the other. The space between forms a kind of arena, a stage within a stage for the women’s violent attacks of movement. The arrangement suggests a church–the line of chairs an altar or special place for elders, the scattered chairs the congregation–while the lighting suggests a tribunal, perhaps an interrogation.

The alternately regimented and abandoned movement in Vespers, the way Dove plays with conformity and nonconformity, with moving in and out of sync, suggests a critical view of restrictive religions, particularly because the women sometimes attack one another. At one point they form three couples, and one woman in each hits the other woman in the stomach; at various points one dancer touches another on the shoulder and she drops as if shot to the floor. But maybe that touch on the shoulder is sympathetic, triggering some release, perhaps religious ecstasy. And the women’s final movement–a breath out in unison without music–expresses a deep but mysterious sense of community. I’m not sure what Vespers means, but I feel it means something; and that sense of an almost decipherable meaning is what pulls us in.

Donald Byrd’s Dance at the Gym, on the same program, does not pull us in. Though it’s blessedly free of the obvious trappings of a high school dance and expert in its way, its ideas are predictable. It opens with a single woman and four men whose spiky, jabbing limbs make them look like thorny plants or spiny animals. Add hostile, bored looks and you’ve nailed adolescent defensiveness and sexual antagonism. At first the men and women tend to travel in herds, but gradually they pair up: the piece ends with four couples in romantic clinches, their melting, caressing motions the opposite of the staccato ones at the beginning.

Anyone who’s been to a school dance knows exactly what’s going on in Byrd’s work–and doesn’t learn anything more. There’s lots of obvious posing, lots of splits for the women loaded with innuendo. To Byrd interesting movement is less important than that we get his ideas, but the resulting dance has little intellectual or kinetic interest.

Dove’s approach is to worry about ideas less and distinctive choreography more, and as a result the movement creates the ideas. His dances really move too–the perfect arabesque doesn’t matter, but how the dancer attains and loses the position does. Ailey’s freewheeling choreography in the 1960 Revelations has a similar appeal. There’s a male trio called “Sinner Man” with a red backdrop like hell flames and music that sounds like it came right out of a 50s TV western, but the dancing is spectacular. As these three men hurtled around the stage trying to escape the sinner’s fate, I could only think that hell might be worth it if you could dance like this.

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