- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater exhibits striking contradictions in its appearance this week at the Kennedy Center. The powerhouse dancers perform in a repertoire that sometimes seems a waste of their talents. When the dancers are challenged by works of substance, their bodies become tautly controlled, their leg extensions reach to the sky, and they whirl through fast spins and land on a dime in razor-sharp balance. As performers, they project with a dazzling wattage that manages even to outshine the dramatic lighting the company favors.
Audiences here can see works that range from the glibly slick to more impressive newer works to the backbone of the company's repertoire, the dances choreographed by the late Mr. Ailey.
Highlights are "Serving Nia," a new work by the gifted choreographer Ronald K. Brown; a revival of "Shelter" by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar; and excerpts of Ailey works created from 1960 to 1988.
The Washington premiere of "Serving Nia" reaffirmed the highly individual style Mr. Brown brings to his choreography. He uses African movements the spasmodic thrusting out of arms and legs, speed and rhythm and hip-hop dancing and transforms them into a coherent work of art.
Mr. Brown worked with source material from Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. He uses as a score jazz by Roy Brooks and Branford Marsalis, a percussion piece from Guinea and Dizzy Gillespie's "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac," to add a little humorous punch at the end.
"Nia" in Swahili means "purpose"; it is also a woman's name. Dancer Renee Robinson embodies both, as she leads and exhorts her followers along a spiritual path. Each encounter seems to lead to small epiphanies.
Mr. Brown's assimilation of all these influences creates a lyrical and swift-moving dance that glows with beauty. Only at the end does his inspiration seem to flag as he relies on a stage device for his finale a cluster of shining stars in the sky.
The entire cast matches his pitch of intensity, including Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Asha Thomas, Cheryl Rowley-Gaskins, Rosalyn Sanders, Venus Hall, Matthew Rushing, Vernard J. Gilmore and Glenn A. Sims.
The company also brings an earlier work by Mr. Brown, "Grace." While "Nia" is earthy, "Grace" offers an abstract, heavenly vision. Mr. Brown's works seem an appropriate extension of themes that interested Mr. Ailey.
As the years pass, the divide between the company's Ailey repertoire and its hard-edged new works becomes greater. That this necessarily need not be so was brought home by a stunning performance of Miss Zollar's "Shelter." Her "Shelter," a picture of near despair among people on the outskirts of society, has the emotional depth, heat and conviction so present in the best of Mr. Ailey's works.
The musical score of "Shelter" is enhanced by words heard fleetingly in the background, including a section called "Between a Rock and a Hard Place at the Intersection of Reduced Resources and Reverberating Rage."
Miss Zollar and the Ailey company through the years have used either an all-female cast or an all-male cast in "Shelter." Both have brought special qualities to the work the women more poignant, the men more desperate.
The number is danced at the Kennedy Center by an all-male cast of Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Anthony Burrell, Dion Wilson, Amos J. Machanic Jr., Juan-Antonio Rodriguez and Samuel Deshauteurs. They are terrific, revealing their grit and humanity as they erupt in movement or collapse in a heap.
Perhaps the punched-up style demanded in so much of the company's current repertoire makes this more expressionistic way of moving a rarity. Certainly it is sadly missing in the company's birthright and its greatest work "Revelations."
"Revelations" always has had its pyrotechnic moments: I can recall the company's first performance of it at Lisner Auditorium in the early 1960s then as now presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. There was a wave of applause as the trio of men hit the dust at the end of "Sinner Man," the first time I ever heard a spontaneous ovation in the middle of a modern dance.
"Revelations," as Mr. Ailey made clear in his eponymous autobiography, was a deeply heartfelt work that came out of his impoverished upbringing in rural Texas and his feeling for the spiritual strength he found in the black church.
"Revelations" has become glossy and acrobatic, with its climaxes overdone and its technical feats pushed to the limit. The company has let its stunning technical prowess take over. This proves to be most notable in the duet, "Fix Me Jesus," where the troupe's emotional power is overshadowed by its emphasis on virtuosity, and the act of balancing in a deep backbend with a leg in high extension becomes a substitute for spiritual reverence. That its effect has been trivialized was evident from the applause that burst forth during the drawn-out balances.
A dazzling technique is like a genie in a bottle once it is out, it is hard to put it back. The audience expects it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling trait. The Ailey dancers are too good to let their artistry be overshadowed by technique.
That technique is used for all its sharp, steely attitude in Donald Byrd's "Dance at the Gym." Mr. Byrd has original dance ideas. This one, a riff on what the dancers in Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story" might be doing at their gym dance, is a slight work. These youngsters are more hard-edged, their encounters are less sentimental, and their incessant partnerings wear thin before the dance is over.
Dwight Rhoden's "Chocolate Sessions," a repeat from last year, is busy, bright and brazen.
In "Caravan," a revival of a 1976 work by the late Louis Falco, a lot of stage business ensues. Dancers, acting as stagehands, unroll a stage floor and tape it down while other dancers dance, and several see-through scrims descend periodically to the stage. Activity abounds, but not focus.
The company also presents an all-Ailey program, to be repeated tonight. Mr. Ailey's range and scope are on display and the sense of classicism that is part of his strength. It makes for an interesting before-and-after picture of the company both its roots and where it is headed.

WHAT: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
WHEN: 2 and 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. tomorrow
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
TICKETS: $26 to $67
PHONE: 202/467-4600

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