New beginnings often contain built-in excitement, but there was an extra note of promise in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s program Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. This was Washington’s first look at the effects of a change in leadership at the company, and going by the pleasant surprises in the repertoire, as well as the healthy appearance and vivid energy of the dancers, Artistic Director Robert Battle has the troupe’s forward momentum well in hand.
We’ll have to wait for future seasons to see if Battle, who officially took over from longtime director Judith Jamison in July, has any major alterations in store for the 53-year-old modern-dance company. It’s unlikely that he will deviate much from Ailey’s consistently winning formula of a lean touring operation — unencumbered by elaborate sets or costumes — and accessible works capped by “Revelations,” a gospel-driven distillation of human vitality created by founder Alvin Ailey. As expected, that piece will close each of the troupe’s performances during its stay here, which will end Sunday.
Although Tuesday’s program showed no radical inclination toward a break with the company’s past, there was one important, and perhaps momentous, development. For the first time in its history, the troupe performed a work by the venerable Paul Taylor. And even though that piece, “Arden Court,” was not perfectly rendered — the men need to soften their landings, and a few cut short the full expression of grandeur in the arms — it was certainly given respectable treatment.
Performing Taylor signaled that Ailey could transition into what the modern-dance world urgently needs: a repertory company to safeguard great but imperiled choreography.
Greatness doesn’t last long in dance, tied as it is to human mortality. We’ve lost Martha Graham (she died in 1991), and although her company continues on, it does not have nearly the reach of the widely touring Ailey operation. We’ve lost Merce Cunningham (he died in 2009) and his company (it disbanded in December). The influential German choreographer Pina Bausch also died in 2009, and her company’s future is uncertain. Not even the triumphant new Wim Wenders documentary about it is a substitute for live performance of Bausch’s work. We needn’t mourn Taylor yet — he is still creating. But he’s 81. And the reality is that any single-choreographer dance company is a fragile thing once its founder has died and there are no more premieres to attract funders and ticket sales.
Ailey’s great strength is that it takes on the works of so many choreographers. As a repertory company not wed to any one style or aesthetic, always seeking new blood, it was able to survive its own founder’s death in 1989. Yet the quality of offerings has not been stellar in the past several years — too much fishing in the familiar waters of company members trying their hands at dancemaking, or works that exploited physical feats over interpretive revelations. For this reason, Battle’s acquisition of Taylor’s “Arden Court” is a boon.