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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Tribal tales, Gospel, and the blues

By Annie Choi

photo editor

April 20, 25, 8 p.m.

April 24 matinee 2 p.m., April 25, 3 p.m.

The Wang Theatre, Boston

(617) 482-9393

As part of the successful BankBoston Celebrity Series, the Wang Theatre hosts the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this week. Now celebrating their 40th anniversary season, this week’s performance features the Boston premieres of Lettres D’Amour (1998) and Echo: Far From Home (1998). Even students who fear the black turtlenecks and abstract nature of modern dance will find the performance a refreshing escape from the dog days of classes.

Alvin Ailey formed the company in 1958 to develop one of the most influential American dance groups to grace the stage. Rooted in black culture, the troupe adapts tribal tales, incorporates themes from the Gospel and integrates blues with contemporary music. It is this unique combination which has fueled the group’s success. Currently, the troupe has performed in over 68 countries in addition to their national tours, plus a recent residency in South Africa. After Ailey's death in 1989, Judith Jamison, renowned dancer and choreographer, and also former student, took on the role of artistic director to endorse modern dance and express black culture through innovation.

Tuesday’s opening night performance was a resounding success, vastly impressive in choreography and art direction -- the areas which have characterized the company as a powerhouse in modern dance. The first piece, The Prodigal Prince (1968) was choreographed by two-time Tony Award recipient Geoffrey Holder and inspired by the life of Haitian high priest Hector Hyppolite. St. John the Baptist and Voudoun (a religion of Haiti) goddess Erzulie, came to Hyppolite in a vision, inspiring him to paint and ultimately gain recognition for his talents as a historical primitive painter. The piece is rich with spiritual and tribal tones- forceful drumbeats and chants fueling fervent arms reaching towards the sky and enchanting costumes of feather headdresses and colorful skirts. The dancers in the vision sequence had faces shrouded in black scarves, representing the mystery and anonymity of figures emerging in dreams. Repeating movements offered a sense of exotic ritual. The costumes matched the energy of the dancers and the use of shiny flags mesmerized the audience. Matthew Rushing performed an inspirational Hyppolite, displaying both passion and amazing endurance. Bernard Gaddis and Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, playing St. John the Baptist and the goddess Erzulie played majestic and commanding advisors through slow, almost rigid movements and grave faces. Holder’s adaptation is exquisite and show-stopping.

The second piece was the Boston premiere of Lettres D’Amour (1998), masterfully executed by Radha, French choreographer who grew up in North Africa. The piece explores people’s battle with love, seduction and isolation. Unlike the previous dance, Radha’s interpretation strayed from glamorous costumes and chaotic lighting, and the performers wore black and silver masks and began on a stage sparsely lit with white light. The result was a cold, dark stage to convey isolation and the cruel realities of seduction. The dancers struggled with each other, at first embracing, then stepping on each other. Those bored with their partners would look to others for excitement, only to be emotionally starved. The music was ecclectic- everything from classical pieces to electronic, along with an instrumental rendition of Metallica's “Nothing Else Matters.” Often times it had the pulse of a nightclub with a heavy driving beat, red lights and smoke. At one point three bright spotlights attached to electric fans were wheeled on stage and aimed at a soloist, creating a unique effect with shadows.

The final piece, Revelations, was choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960 and is the jewel of the company. Using Gospel and blues music, the piece is a definite crowd-pleaser. Costumes included long white dresses, complete with hats and umbrellas accented the piece with an old Southern flavor. The lighting was in orange and yellow, to imitate the hot Texan sun that Ailey played in as a child. Songs like “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” put the audience in a white church house deep in the South. Hand clapping, foot-stomping and incredibly energetic movements tickled the crowd and made them long for iced tea.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will be moving audiences at the Wang through Sunday, April 25.