Saturday, March 8, 2008

faith, hope and ailey

With the announcement last week that Judith Jamison will retire as head of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2011, dancegoers are forced to take stock of the company's extraordinary 20-year run under Jamison's care. Not only did the fiercesome, elegant 5-foot-10 dancer reassemble a troupe that had fallen into disarray, but she propelled the company to the very top of the field. Wednesday night's dancing was testament to her success.

It was the first night of the company's stop at Cal Performances in Berkeley, a program of four works that ranged from the sassy to the sculptural to the reverent. But the dances generally took second place to the dancers, who commanded the stage with more professionalism and well-chiseled character than virtually any ballet company on the map and any handful of top modern dance troupes combined.

That is Jamison's legacy, hands down.

In the Ailey company, there are no cookie-cutter dancers, no android corps members. It is a troupe of movers in astonishing command of their instruments (that means head, heart, and body), and like both chamber players and jazz musicians, each of them can step out to solo, then fuse back with the whole. They can also dance just about anything handed to them, from ballet leg beats to the Funky Chicken.

The tall and exquisitely protean Clifton Brown is one of the company's current virtuosos. He opened Wednesday with the intensely balletic "Firebird" (1970) as conceived by the once-avant-garde French choreographer Maurice Bejart, who infused ballet with greater cinematic sweep and populist impulse than it had had since the Ballets Russes.

Brown is a promethean Firebird, a male principal unabashed by fluttering softness, and he uses his long, strong but soft limbs to wing through space and make it shimmer. He is surrounded by a band of soldiers in the kind of pastel camouflage American troops now wear (in the 1970s, the soldiers wore Mao caps), and they embrace him with unison work that is broken, occasionally, by beautiful duets or solos. Battle leads to a broken-winged Firebird and the eventual emergence of his double, the Phoenix, danced by Jamar Roberts.

The original "Firebird," choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1910 for the Ballets Russes, extrapolated its story about the magical bird from the long-toothed Russian fairy tale. Bejart, in turn, took only the symbolic phoenixlike creature at the center of battle to create a work of rebellion and rebirth.

A company spokeswoman said that Ailey has been trying to acquire a Bejart ballet for some time (Jamison herself danced with Bejart's company). "Firebird," with its allusions to nationalist struggles of the 1960s and social renewal, is a timely choice this year. Jim Crow laws segregating whites and blacks were still on the books in the South when Ailey created a troupe in 1958 with artistic and racial diversity as its guiding principles. Much has changed since, while much remains to change.

Jim Crow was alive and well, too, when Ray Charles sang "Lonely Avenue" and sang and wrote "What'd I Say," the latter appropriating gospel music at honky-tonk speeds to celebrate physical pleasures. This is the music that launches "The Groove to Nobody's Business" (2007) by Camille A. Brown in its West Coast premiere. It's a delightful slice of New York life above ground and in the subway. Though it loses steam by the time the ensemble is riding a subway (both music by Brandon McCune and Brown's movement are too tame), it offers us a wacky array of bit players and their butt-shaking fulminations danced hilariously by Matthew Rushing and company.

The rest of the program "" Elsa Monte's sinuous "Treading" (1979), set to Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," and the venerable "Revelations," set to gospel and folk songs "" upended conventions when they were crafted. The Ailey company doesn't let us forget the power of those landmarks, and with a vision and fortitude that puts faith in art, keeps giving them new life and meaning with joyful and peerless dancing.

reprinted with permission

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