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Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre gives uneven performance



Judith Jamison, Artistic Director.

Wang Center, March 21, 8 pm.


IHAVE SEEN THE AMAZING ALVIN AILEY modern dance troupe several times over the past five years, mostly at the intimate Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, a nearly ideal setting for dance of any kind. But I saw them perform in the Wang Center before spring break, and for the first time, I fell short of being knocked over and blown away. They were good, but not as good as I have come to expect from this group. Also, the Wang Center has problems of its own, which reduced the impact some of the pieces could have had.

If your idea of dance is ballet and tutus, the Ailey troupe will surprise you. They are actors, as much mimes and storytellers as dancers. They are limber, sexy, and strong. In the first piece, an Ailey-choreographed number done to Duke Ellington's "Night Creature," men carry women, women carry men, the dancers compete on stage in a virtuoso display of energy and talent.

Many of their pieces tell contemporary fables, like one I saw many years ago which did Jimi Hendrix' life in dance: the guitar, the fans, the drugs, the collapse, the abandonment by his fans, his death in agony. It was stunning and chilling, and aimed squarely at the college audience Zellerbach Hall provided.

But only two of the five pieces they performed a week ago Thursday had any story to tell, and one, North Star, performed to the music of the minimalist composer Philip Glass, seemed intended to be the opposite. North Star is several short, high-energy dances, done to Glass' rhythmic, repetitive music, with no transition other than shutting down the stage lights in between. I felt like I was watching "Dance McNuggets." North Star left me hungry for something more substantial.

Ailey, who died in 1990, often focused on the black religious experience in his works. His famous salute to black gospel music, Revelations, was shown Tuesday and Friday evenings. Thursday, the troupe performed Ailey's Hermit Songs, another series of solo dances, some of which had the breathtaking choreography which made Ailey such a legend. At the close of "Sea-Snatch," the third dance of this four-dance sequence, the woman dancing alone on stage seemed to lose her mind, dancing wildly, insanely. As the piece ended, every muscle in her body trembled and twitched, and she swung her arms everywhere, seeming to lose control as the lights went down around her.

The finale, The Stack-Up, choreographed by Talley Beatty, was more the fast-paced story-telling dance I prefer. The scene was a disco, where three innocent couples, two rival gangs of four, a drug pusher, and a heroin addict and his girlfriend dance through teases and feints, flirtations and rivalries, temptations and addictions. Sex is in the air. So is violence, even death -- after getting a hit from the dealer, the addict sweats, dances even more wildly, then collapses, his girlfriend over him, calling for help. I agree with Peter Shaffer's Amadeus on the subjects of opera and dance: Both are at their best when they find timeless themes in the subjects of everyday life. This was Ailey's genius, and it shows in the appeal of The Stack-Up as well.

Part of my disappointment with the group's Thursday night performance has to do with problems with the Wang Center itself. The center looks inside like a huge, old-fashioned movie house, more appropriate to opera than the intimacy modern dance demands. In addition, it has an annoying sound system, which hissed audibly when the tapes started for each of the pieces, and during transitions within whole dances. Sound systems should be subtle and unobtrusive; this was neither.

As for the dancing itself -- perhaps it was the short pieces, perhaps the fact that only two of the five pieces performed were choreographed by Ailey himself, perhaps just that I much prefer sitting back and enjoying being seduced by the Ailey troupe's energy and talent, instead of trying to dissect what I saw. For several reasons, I came away disappointed.

I am hopeful that the troupe's problems that night were not the beginning of a long decline. But declines do happen sometimes, when the original choreographers of revolutionary dance groups like the Ailey die or retire. None of the pieces they performed that night were choreographed by current artistic director Judith Jamison, so I will have to withhold my judgment on that until the next time they come to town.