- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a magnificent group of dancers. When they are faced with challenging work, the stage is filled with glory. That happened opening night when the company performed its signature work, "Revelations," which also will be on the closing matinee and evening performances today.

This masterwork, created by the late Mr. Ailey 43 years ago, has continued to exert its spell over the years, no matter how many times it is performed, a tribute first to its inspired and inspiring choreography, but also to the freshness, conviction and brilliance with which it is currently being danced.

Linda Celeste Sims, Amos J. Machanic Jr., Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, Matthew Rushing, Renee Robinson, Jeffrey Gerodias, Dion Wilson, Anthony Burrell and Samuel Deshauteurs were among the ballet's outstanding soloists.

"Revelations" has nary a speck of dust on it after four decades of performances. It is an icon, but it also is very much a living, breathing work of art, thanks to the fervent and openhearted way the remarkable Ailey dancers perform it.

After watching scores of performances over the years, I still found it a thrill to sit in the Kennedy Center's cavernous Concert Hall, where the Ailey company is appearing this year, and experience its undiminished power.

The striking opening of "Revelations," with the dancers clustered in a spotlight, arms thrust skyward, is an image repeated in dozens of photos of the company and appropriated (sometimes shamelessly) by other choreographers. Whether in moments of lament or of rejoicing, Mr. Ailey's feeling for his roots, his African-American heritage and the spirituals that spring from it finds the perfect form to capture those emotions.

Any sincerity of emotion or strong sense of form was missing from the evening's opening number, "Prayers From the Edge," a slick and shallow tale of love, rape, conflict and healing that AAADT commissioned last year from Lynne Taylor-Corbett. It was set to music by Peter Gabriel from his album "Passion," with exotic costumes by Judanna Lynn, and had, in addition, two assistant choreographers, Warren Adams and Alexandra Damiani.

Needless to say, it was performed to the hilt by the company's dancers, but in this context, instead of putting themselves at the service of soulful choreography, they looked like so many bodies beautiful doing overwrought, empty gestures: sky-high extensions, torso undulations, precarious balances full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

To put so much talent at the service of such a superficial ballet seems almost a crime.

There was nothing halfway about the dancers, however. Clifton Brown provided a welcome gentleness in his role, and Asha Thomas, Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines, Mr. Rushing and Miss Sims were other standout performers.

More form was evident in "Black Milk," a work for five men by Ohad Naharin, an Israeli choreographer who has been director of the Batsheva Dance Company.

A sense of ritual pervades the ballet as the men, one by one, plunge their hands into a metal bucket and smear their faces and bodies not with black milk, but with what looks like gray mud. Toward the end, one of the men approaches the bucket again and splashes himself repeatedly with glistening sprays of water. How the gray mud morphs into sparkling water is one of the mysteries of this mysterious work, which has a soaring middle section.

"Treading" was the opening program's other dance, a pas de deux by Elisa Monte to music of Steve Reich performed by Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell and Mr. Brown. It is another body-beautiful work, but its modesty of tone made it more appealing than "Prayers From the Edge." The two dancers were a picture of sensuality caught in time, with a bow to the cantilevered style of the dance group Pilobolus.

This afternoon's performance will feature Mr. Ailey's work, with excerpts from his varied repertoire, including "For 'Byrd' With Love," a tribute to Charlie Parker; "Cry," the solo Mr. Ailey created for Judith Jamison; and, of course, "Revelations."

In the evening, the company will again dance "Revelations" and also "The Winter in Lisbon," by Billy Wilson to music of Dizzy Gillespie; "Black Milk"; and "Treading."

The vitality of the present company is a tribute to the stewardship of Miss Jamison, its artistic director, and to the strong contribution made by her longtime associate artistic director, Masazumi Chaya.

Besides all its onstage excitement, the company is starting construction on a state-of-the-art home in New York City, which it proudly claims will be the largest dance facility in the country. It is a reassuring sign of AAADT's long-run stability and importance.


***

WHAT: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

WHEN: Today at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

TICKETS: $27 to $67

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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