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Ailey performances blur line between theater and dance

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Judith Jamison, artistic director.
The Wang Center.
March 25, 8 p.m.

By Deborah A. Levinson
Advisory Board

One tends to think of dance not as theater, but as an exhibition of precise, traditional steps. After all, who goes to see Sleeping Beauty for the story? It's the corps de ballet that draws us there. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater transcends this limited definition, blurring the line between dance and theater. An Ailey company piece is not just first through fifth positions, a pirouette, and an arabesque; it is those moves matched seamlessly with the spoken word, or a nostalgic portrait of daily life in 1950s Harlem, or a gentle, moving tribute to African-American women and mothers. It is theater and dance with a unique poetry and soul.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater did not disappoint in its performance last Thursday night at the Wang Center. It opened with an Ailey-choreographed piece from 1958 called "Blues Suite," divided into 10 scenes, each danced to a different blues song. The first scene, "Good Morning Blues," chronicled the rites of passion in the heat of the day -- petty fights, accusations, the mating dance of lovers. The following scenes shifted the focus to small vignettes, with five or fewer dancers telling the story of their little corner of Harlem. In "Mean Ol' Frisco," five men performed a dance of barely restrained power, their clenched fists reinforcing the seriousness and purposefulness of their movements, but the wide swaths their exposed, muscular arms cut in the air lent the dance a certain joy.

"House of the Rising Sun," the fourth scene, opened with three nightgown-clad women posed on stools, much like the Amsterdam prostitutes-in-windows. This was a tense piece, as one frustrated dancer tried to escape from the "house," and two others held her back. The escapee's attempts were genuinely poignant, as she spun around, stretched out her legs, or kicked her foot; but in the end, she fell, the others rushed to comfort her, and they all returned to their poses.

After a pause, the program continued with "Cry," a 1971 piece Ailey created for Judith Jamison when she was a dancer for the company. "Cry" is dedicated to "all black women everywhere -- especially our mothers," and takes place in three movements to music by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro, and Chuck Griffin. Renee Robinson, a tall, lithe woman, performed this solo dance. Dressed in a white leotard and full, ruffled skirt, she began the dance holding a long white sheet. In some Asian cultures, white is a symbol of death, an image certainly not lost on this dance. Robinson, imitating a lost mother, first smoothed down the sheet as if she were a mother making a bed, then used it to scrub the floor, then as a headwrap. The second movement was much sadder, with Robinson pretending to cry, and then dancing to mourn and purge herself of pain. In the last movement, her skirt flying around her, Robinson kicked high-spiritedly, dancing in celebration and self-affirmation. She gave a stellar performance, for which she was rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

The third piece of the evening, "A Folk Dance," was a premiere of a work by choreographer Donald Byrd, with minimalist, quasi-techno music by Mio Morales. The piece progressed in six movements, comprising four solos buttressed by two ensemble dances. "A Folk Dance" turned the typical notion of a folk dance on its ear -- four dancers held hands, touched, and moved in unison, and the music had the same heavy drum and tambourine beat; but the dancers were wearing bright red '60s paisley and velour, and the strange angularity and syncopation of the bass keyboard patch were unsettling.

The next four movements were solos, each loosely based on the folk dance of different cultures. The arrhythmia of the drums in the first recalled Chinese dragon music, and the dancer slinked and strutted around the stage; in the second, a man performed a flamenco-flavored dance; and the final two solos drew from the lambada and Middle Eastern dance, respectively. "A Folk Dance" is a clever, unusual piece, showcasing the versatility of individual performers.

"District Storyville," a 1962 work choreographed by Donald McKayle and Leslie Watanabe, is a three-act "play" set to the music of Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton as well as some traditional New Orleans funeral and parade music. The play takes place in 1903, when jazz and its culture ruled New Orleans, and opened with the company in a funeral procession, complete with (pantomimed) mournful brass band, funeral bier, and wailing, veiled women. As the company returned from the funeral, now dancing jubilantly to the horns, the play moved into the second act, entitled "Sporting House Saga," a portrait of a nightclub and its denizens. In one scene, male dancers capered with whorehouse manager Countess (Robinson), as she tried to show them she's still got what it takes -- but the men were easily distracted by the horn player. In another, Little Lou (Tracy Inman) and his friends made a poor man's rhythm section out of a washboard, a whistle, a shaker, and their own clapping hands. In "The Crave," Sugar Lover (Danielle Gee) and Willie the Pleaser (Leonard Meek) danced coyly around an enormous canopied bed, eventually cavorting on top of it. (The lace bedspread disguised a trampoline, giving the dancers' movements more breadth and height.) "District Storyville," though short on plot, was long on atmosphere; it had drama and action, and above all, a sense of the gritty romance of turn-of-the-century, jazz-struck New Orleans.

All of the Ailey Dance Theater's works had two things in common: a genuine sense of African-American culture, and a universality that made them accessible to all. Every piece recalled some memory embedded in the American psyche, be it as huge as the influence of New Orleans jazz on modern music and culture or as personal as the loss of a mother who worked hard to give her children what they needed. The universality of the company's work is what makes it so appealing, and what will certainly assure it at least another 35 years of success.