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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Jumping and Jiving

By Annie S. Choi

One of the nation’s most celebrated dance troupes, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, opened their week-long run at the Wang Theatre on Tuesday. Under the experienced hand of artistic director Judith Jamison, the troupe performed two pieces for the first time on a Boston stage, as well as two numbers that are Alvin Ailey favorites.

The opening piece of the evening was Night Creature (1974), a celebration of jazz culture. Set to the music of jazz master Duke Ellington, the piece tells the story of a group of hip, young cats who spend all night reveling in jazz clubs. Night Creature was choreographed by the late Alvin Ailey and was originally part of a program entitled “Ailey Celebrates Ellington.” Ailey’s choreography is a silky mix of ballet and swing -- and a lot of attitude. The dancers bounce and swing to the Duke’s sensuous piano movements, juxtaposing complicated lifts and simple cha-cha steps.

The number’s lead dancer, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, stole the performance with her bewitching form during sultry moments and fantastic leaps during lively ones. She successfully interprets the mood of Ellington and his time. As dawn arrives each night creature departs, waving good byes to the female lead and to the audience. In a golden moment, one dancer tries to make his moves on the female lead, perhaps in hope of a different kind of dance, and she rejects him with a nonchalant wave.

The lighting, dim and sparse, is meant to portray the moonlight that the night creatures spend most of their hours. However, Chenault Spence’s lighting design is ineffective. Patches of blackness afflict the stage, leaving many dancers faceless and quite ominous.

The second piece, Chocolate Sessions (2000), had its first performance on a Boston stage. Choreographed by Dwight Rhoden, the piece examines relationships between men and women. While Night Creature is a celebration, Chocolate Sessions is a sober look at tensions between people. The dancers, scantily clad in bright metallic mini-skirts and shorts, tug, pull, and slide against each other. The choreography incorporates complex lifts, leaps, and holds, reflecting the complications that arise in relationships. However, it is a theme that has been done over and over again in modern dance -- tension and strife between lovers and friends. Rhoden’s piece, though technically stunning, adds nothing new to the theme.

The music to Chocolate Sessions, composed by Antonio Carlos Scott, is complicated as the choreography. The music includes a string of unnerving sounds, such as a skipping CD, muffled thuds, and short snippets of an unrecognizable song (the program notes explain that they are from “A Song for You” performed by Donny Hathaway). The music is simply too abstract for a theme that everyone understands.

The third piece, Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000), is choreographed by critically acclaimed Alonzo King. Like Rhoden’s number, Upstream incorporates some innovative moves. In the first movement, three men, Jeffrey Gerodias, Kevin E. Boseman, and Benoit-Swan Pouffer, dance in complete silence -- turning, twisting, and jumping -- and never let go of each others’ hands.

Instead of traditional music, Upstream incorporates East Indian instruments, bells, and drums as well as ethnic rhythms. Sounds of rain and thunder (and a cheesy fog-machine), accompany the dancers’ dizzying movements. The result is an intense composition that is unpredictable and explosive.

The closing piece, Revelations (1960) is perhaps the most famous selection the company performs. It is a crowd-pleasing, energetic piece that reflects Ailey’s childhood in Texas. Set to moving gospel songs (“I Been ‘Buked,” “Fix Me, Jesus,” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” to name a few), the dancers wave their arms wildly as if they were incensed by the power of the Bible. Though some dancers were more enthusiastic than their colleagues (some of the soloists were delightfully close to being over the top), the piece was executed well. The lighting, designed by Nicola Cernovitch, was simple -- a great yellow circle representing the hot Southern sun. Female dancers donned long, white, frilly dresses and flapped over-sized wicker fans, while the men wore black pants with vests and ties.

The best part of Revelations is the fact that everyone -- dancers and audience members --were genuinely having a good time. With so many modern dancers exploring somber themes, it is refreshing to see smiles and not tortured souls.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will be performing at the Wang through Sunday, and their program includes four Boston premieres. One premiere that will be worth a look is Judith Jamison’s integration of dance and technology, Double Exposure (2000), in which dancers hold cameras that project on to screens that are 20 feet high.