An Exhilarating Workout Of Ailey's Tender Side

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

The famously well-rounded members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater can be many things -- hard-bodied athletes, exquisite technicians, emotional geysers. Tuesday night, the opening of the company's engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, was a luminous showcase for a rarer aspect: the softer side.

After what has seemed like an upswing in more driving, aggressive action from this company, it was good to see it emphasize quality of movement, musical phrasing and the wit of a perfectly timed gesture or look. Not that there was anything squishy about the program. Each of the four works left an emphatic impression: David Parsons's "Shining Star," an ode to the addictive 1970s hits of Earth, Wind & Fire; Hans van Manen's "Solo," in which three slyly competitive men take turns in the spotlight; Artistic Director Judith Jamison's stylistically rich new work, "Reminiscin'," and the company's big gun, "Revelations."

Tuesday also marked the triumphant homecoming of a local dancer whose extraordinary talent had succumbed, for a time, to injury. Alicia Graf, a native of Ellicott City, had been dancing lead roles in neoclassical works by George Balanchine and others at the Dance Theatre of Harlem while still a teenager. Her Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," to name one of several memorable parts she danced on tour here, presented an unforgettable mix of sensual power and cruel command.

Starting in 1999, however, persistent knee and ankle problems sidelined Graf for several years, long enough for her to graduate from Columbia University, intent on pursuing a corporate career. A change of heart led her to rejoin the Harlem company in 2004, but by then it was on the brink of financial collapse and shut down soon after her return.

Graf recently landed at the Ailey troupe, making a quick study of its modern dance style and -- as before -- earning lead roles almost at once. Tuesday, she made "Shining Star" live up to its name, giving so-so choreography the lyrical urgency of an aria.

Graf's slender, leggy proportions -- she stands nearly six feet tall -- and voluptuously pliable feet made her a natural for Balanchine's form-driven neoclassical works. Thus it was hard to see that incredible ballet body slinking around like an alley cat on the prowl in Parsons's work. But Graf's intuitive grace means she can do just about anything physically possible and make it look easy, natural and uncomplicated. She can hold a lovely position like a bird in flight while being hoisted around in the air and look like she's having the time of her life (much credit is due her partner, Dion Wilson, for aiding in the illusion of ease). She combines go-go abandon and utter class, which gave her many gyrations and swivelings a silken finish.

"Shining Star" is buoyed by its half-dozen Earth Wind & Fire songs (the title tune, as well as "Can't Hide Love" and the irresistible "September," among others). This music comes with its own not-to-be-ignored dance imperative, and Parsons capitalizes on it. His ideas are limited, however, veering between variations on extended cuddling and putting the women through a less-kindly mating ritual in which they are flung into the air and then dragged around on the ground. This is a work of great energy, however, owing to the cast and the recordings.

"Solo" made an effective counterpoint, with its fresh use of a Bach violin suite and a whimsical air, even as Clifton Brown, Glenn Allen Sims and Matthew Rushing seemed bent on dueling for blood. Van Manen didn't rely too much on muscularity and grandstanding; plenty of rounded edges and surprises were here, as well as a high demand for technical finesse and musical sensitivity.

It was just the right length, too; economically paced, without merely filling out music. You couldn't say the same for "Reminiscin'," a mood-setting work with plenty of juicy parts, but too long by half.

Jamison is a skilled choreographer; she just needs an editor to tell her when the story has run its course. Still, she has fun with various shades of love and friendship and tricks of memory. There were many moments to relish, such as Renee Robinson's brush fire of a solo, with the veteran dancer (coming up on her 25th anniversary at Ailey) as giddy as a teenager, to Ella Fitzgerald's "Tisket, A Tasket." Linda Celeste Sims was another standout, pairing effortless strength with gentleness. A deliberately uneasy duet between Hope Boykin and Brown was at the heart of this work, highlighting Jamison's affinity for emotionally charged gesture and the dramatic moment, as when Boykin ran at Brown and with a huge jump appeared to Velcro herself to his chest.

Love and rivalry, the evening's themes, had their place in "Revelations" as well, as did the downy physical quality so clearly in evidence. This perennial Ailey finale was cast from strength throughout, particularly Amos J. Machanic Jr. in the "I Wanna Be Ready" solo. With the emollient use of their shoulders, Robinson, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Rushing made the "Wade in the Water" segment a glorious celebration of the rotator cuff. Robinson adds a dimension no one else does to this work, a thrillingly clear dramatic and spiritual motivation. She's got "it," that mysterious quality that sets a star apart. This program ended as it began, with Graf's display at the evening's outset matched by Robinson's at its close.

Performances continue through Sunday, with program and casting changes.

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