dance review

High energy from Ailey troupe at Kennedy Center

girl power: Renee Robinson performs "Cry," created by Alvin Ailey for Judith Jamison, who retires this summer after 21 years directing the company.
girl power: Renee Robinson performs "Cry," created by Alvin Ailey for Judith Jamison, who retires this summer after 21 years directing the company. (Susan Biddle)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011

It was a big night: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's annual fundraising gala at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday. She wore a big outfit: Artistic Director Judith Jamison, bald head glistening, strode onto the Opera House stage with her monumental cheekbones tipped to the lights, her super-wide-leg pants topped by a bold-patterned, billowing bell-shaped jacket.

And she made a big statement: Back in 1971, Jamison said, "we opened this theater. Almost 40 years later and here we still are, throwing flames out."

But the flames didn't materialize. The evening was a slow burn, a warm snuggle; it was more like comfort food than anything so dangerous as flames. As always, the program closed with "Revelations," Alvin Ailey's tour through gospel songs that is one of America's great cultural treasures (and this year marks its 50th anniversary). "Revelations" endures because it makes you feel something, whether you identify with the images of devotion and riverside baptism or whether you're simply stirred by the songs and the virtuosic dancing.

The sentimental part is what so many other works like it have tried to imitate but can't. The choreography is clear and direct, and the athleticism it depends on also carries palpable emotional force. By the work's close, it's the kind of force that lifts you up and deposits you into a clap-along, which is how the dance portion of the evening ended - and the gala began. Cue the champagne.

Ailey's "Cry" was also on the bill, a rousing, dramatic expression of female strength which he created for Jamison the same year his troupe opened the Kennedy Center. On Tuesday it was separated into three solos, danced in turn by the magnetic veteran Renee Robinson, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell (who left the troupe five years ago but made a guest appearance) and Linda Celeste Sims.

"Cry" and "Revelations" are vintage staples, but the newer works, Robert Battle's "The Hunt" (2001) and Christopher L. Huggins's "Anointed" (2010), drew from the same well. That is, they relied on high-energy dancing, strong percussive music and straightforward, unambiguous intentions. Yet neither piece was especially memorable. "The Hunt" delivered a good pounding, with drumming and occasional screaming by Les Tambours du Bronx, and six men in long skirts who hopped and stomped with uncommon ferocity for an impressive amount of time. Maybe it was 10 minutes, maybe two hours. Still, I felt I'd seen all they had to offer soon after they began.

Huggins, a former company member, created "Anointed" as a tribute to Jamison, whose 21 years at the helm of the nation's largest and best-known modern-dance company comes to an end this summer, when Jamison, 67, hands the troupe over to "The Hunt's" choreographer Battle, 38. "Anointed's" message is not subtle. We see Jamar Roberts all alone onstage, then Sims enters and dances with him, leaping into his arms, darting away and flying back. "Alvin asked me to take over the company," we hear Jamison say in a warbly, otherworldly voiceover. "And I said, sure." Thus are we reminded of her direct line of succession, going back to Ailey's death in 1989.

Roberts rolls into the wings, and we see the Jamison/Sims image multiply - four other women dressed like Sims model strength and resolve. The uninteresting electronic pulse builds to a heroic crest as Roberts returns - now in white ghost clothes - and the stage fills with marvelous dancers and just about as much melodrama as it can hold.

This piece made one feel a bit for Battle, who was never a member of the Ailey company and has never run such a large establishment. But he proved he can follow Jamison, at least at the microphone. A trim, immensely likable man in a charcoal suit and white shirt, he took the podium after Jamison at the program's outset and told a funny story about dashing into the Watergate for a pre-performance haircut, only to discover he was short the cash to pay for it. A kind stranger - and Ailey fan - in the barbershop took care of the tab for him.

Battle is, it seems, already awash in goodwill - and deservedly so - as he approaches July 1, the date when this important company will be his. An arts organization needs goodwill. But it also needs depth, and, yes, flames. Fire. Will he continue the formula Ailey relies upon now - one that stokes comfortable feelings, while avoiding the nuanced, the provocative and the dangerous? It will be interesting to see.

Performances continue through Sunday, with cast and program changes.

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