To "Memoria," his newest creation, given its Washington premiere by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center last night, Ailey has appended the following verbal dedication: "This work is dedicated to the joy . . . the beauty . . . the creativity and the wild spirit of my friend Joyce Trisler."
Dancer, choreographer and teacher, Trisler, who died at the age of 45 last year, knew Ailey from the days when both were disciples of the great American dance pioneer Lester Horton, and the two remained on close personal and artistic terms thereafter. Now, from the feelings prompted by her passing, a mixture of grief, pride and admiration, Ailey has given us his most striking, distinctive and emotionally potent work since "Masekala Language" of 1969.
It is also one of the few Ailey works since that time that can bear comparison with his treasured classic of 1960, "Revelations." "Memoria" not only shares some of its images, but also a congressional spirit and evangelical fervor.
"Memoria" is a sizable work in every sense, about a half-hour in duration and divided into two halves suggested by the subheading "In Memory -- In Celebration," both set to the music of Keith Jarrett ("Runes" and "Solara March"). The "memory" section is dominated by three figures: a woman (Maxine Sherman) who at times seems to represent Trisler herself, and at times, as it were, the spirit of Dance mourning her departure; and two men (Roman Brooks and Alistair Butler) who serve her as acolytes. In addition, six couples swirl intermittently across the stage like tides of feeling. There is an impassioned, life-affirming solo for Sherman, after which a new woman in white beckoning and consoling (a personification of death?) enters before a large tutti passage and a recessional march.
Then the light shifts dramatically, the music takes on a more solemn, yet exulting, hymnic tone, and the stage seems flooded with dancers -- 46 in all in the climactic passages, a third of them from Ailey's senior company, and the rest drawn from his younger Repertory Ensemble and Workshop groups. At the start a long chain of hand-linked dancers crosses at the rear in adagio, while others mold themselves together in choral groups. Ailey's choreography here becomes "symphonic," shaping the heaving sea of bodies into a panorama of dynamic forms. Sherman, who has changed from a white to a red gown, reappears with her minions, and there are wonderful rhapsodic moments as Jarrett's music recharges in intensity.
The end is both monumental and disappointing -- the concentrated mass of dancers heaves Sherman up from their midst like a cross on a mountaintop; it's a splendid, summatory image but the trouble is the music has no corresponding cumulation -- it just stops, abruptly, leaving the dancers in mid-air, so to speak.
"Memoria" was the capstone of a program that began a week of Ailey performances at the Center. Also seen were Lar Lubovich's uneven but compelling version of "Les Noces," to the Stravinsky score; John Butler's "Facets," a solo for Judity Jamison; and George Faison's "Suite Otis." On the whole, the company appeared in fine shape, with Jamison redeeming the vulgar banalities of "Facets," and a red-hot ensemble making "Suite Otis" look better than the choreographic trifle it is.