Swiftly, Alvin Ailey Show an Also-Ran

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

The opening-night audience for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the only one I know of for whom the performance itself is almost secondary. People arrive at the Kennedy Center Opera House in a celebratory mood -- there's a benefit bash afterward -- and the party atmosphere bubbles along all night. The lights may dim, but BlackBerrys are still aglow with the texting of tuxedoed ticket-holders, while still others stand schmoozing in the aisles. Each work is cheered from its first musical notes; every curtain call prompts a hollering, whistling standing ovation. Why not? It's a scene as well as a show.

Tuesday night's Ailey affair seemed louder, dressier and bubblier than usual, perhaps because the dance company is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and this was its 10th annual D.C. gala. Then there's the fact that having a newly installed African American first family adds an element of politico-chic to a well-respected, predominantly African American event in the capital's most prestigious theater.

The Presidential Box, in fact, had occupants: first grandmother Marian Robinson, Sasha and Malia Obama's godmother, Kaye Wilson, and Jill Biden. D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his wife, Michelle, sat nearby.

So much for the rubbernecking. Now for the art, which was less noteworthy. This might change on subsequent evenings. (Performances of a wide range of repertory continue through Sunday afternoon. According to the center, a handful of seats remain for tonight; all other dates are sold out.) But curiously, the weakest offerings were put before the gala attendees.

For many seasons, lightweight choreography has plagued this company of superlative dancers, so many of whom look ravenous for better material. On Tuesday, Ailey's enduring megahit, "Revelations," closed the evening, as usual, and was earnestly and expansively danced, as usual. But here's what was different about it, at least for me: While I've always been fond of this bighearted gospel revue, I've never before been so acutely aware of its elegant simplicity. This is because its strengths soared in comparison to the two lesser works that preceded it, Hope Boykin's new "Go in Grace" and a revival of George Faison's 1971 "Suite Otis," both of which lacked the bristling clarity and penetrating expressiveness of "Revelations." Ailey's work, nearly five decades old, stole my heart all over again.

And yet. The Ailey company is disconcertingly reliant on a single shining accomplishment to carry every show. "Revelations" sells tickets, and any dance company would love to do this kind of box office, but what does it fund? The company has an exhaustive global touring schedule, and must run a tight ship in terms of costs, but increasingly, it seems artistic quality is far down on the list of any given work's virtues, after audience-friendly music and sensational energy.

Those were the key pleasures in "Go in Grace" and "Suite Otis." Boykin, a company member, set her story of a close-knit family enduring adolescent mischief and tragedy to a suite of songs performed live by Washington's own female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The six vocalists flaunted a soft, rolling physicality of their own and roamed the stage almost as much as the dancers did. They weren't just there as backup; they were part of the drama, a chorus of nosey Nellies and huggable grandmas who gave freely of their advice. "Uhn-uhn-uhn," they scold Matthew Rushing, playing the Brother, as they try to warn him away from "the Boyz" (Kirven J. Boyd and Antonio Douthit). "Keep your heart wide open/Keep your legs closed tight," they sing to Rosalyn Deshauteurs, the family's adolescent daughter.

If only Boykin's work for the dancers had the naturalness and easy authority of the vocalists, all of whom looked so blessedly comfortable in their own bodies. If you walked in midway through this piece, you could pick out the dancers because they were the tense, uptight ones. There's also a believability gap. The parents are worked up because Rushing keeps running around with the Boyz, but they look like okay kids to me.

Even the father's death feels false -- we're meant to believe he keels over simply from worrying about his son -- and Boykin fills in the characters' feelings with mime and playacting. Meanwhile, the Sweet Honey vocalists do the sensible thing; they first politely turn away, then gather around, then move discreetly aside out of deference to the family's grief. These are the most authentic physical acts in this work.

Otis Redding simply bleeds emotion into his lyrics, and in "Suite Otis," choreographer Faison (of "The Wiz") wisely didn't try to have the dancers act out what Redding is singing about. "Suite Otis" is free of melodrama. It's quite plain, in fact; relying on one dancer's beautifully isolated hip joint rolling around and around like a roulette ball, or a group of women swirling their hems into a dizzying blur of pink as Redding sings "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." There's no confusion here: Redding provides the soul, the dancers contribute the body. But while the dancers capture the energy of Redding's voice, the choreography doesn't match it with any expressiveness of its own. This is what Ailey's genius is in "Revelations." In that work, the physical dimension enlarges your experience of the music. Renee Robinson's liquid arms in the "Wade in the Water" sequence, to take one example, bring to mind a kind of ecstasy that, once you see her perform, changes forever how you listen to that song. But "Revelations" has matured, evolved and been revised over many years. I'm not sure what other works in the company's repertory lately merit that kind of investment.

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