After an absence of nearly three years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, searing the stage with transports of energy, drive and spirit such as no other company known to us could surpass. It was a brilliant start for a run of seven performances extending through Sunday night, each with a different program, the whole encompassing eight Washington premieres as well as older repertory.
Ailey, if anyone needs reminding, is the Texas-born choreographer and former dancer -- he's now 54 -- who founded in 1958 a unique troupe that has become one of the glories of the dance world. After Ailey's early West Coast experience with the Lester Horton company, he took Broadway by storm in 1954 partnering Carmen de Lavallade in "House of Flowers." Then he fused modern and jazz dance, ballet and Afro-Caribbean elements to fashion his own boldly eclectic but individual choreographic style.
Ailey's eclecticism is mirrored in his aptly named American Dance Theater, which, unlike most modern dance troupes, is not just a showcase for the works of its director, but a broadly based repertory company. There's always been a strong emphasis on black choreographers, themes and styles, but the company itself remains conspicuously multiracial, and the Ailey spectrum has found room for work from such widely disparate sources as Ted Shawn, Choo San Goh and Hans Van Manen.
The three works constituting last night's program were eclectic, too, each in its own fashion, but the primary accents differed greatly, making for a neatly balanced trio of contrasts. The opening "Concerto in F" to Gershwin's music by Billy Wilson, despite its obvious jazz and Broadway ingredients, is actually rather a "classical" number, both in its borrowing from the academic ballet vocabulary and in its symphonic structure. The brisk opening and closing movements are big, well-constructed ensemble pieces dotted with lyrical duets and splashy lifts. The middle Andante, so engagingly set forth by Sharrell Mesh, Gary DeLoatch and Kevin Brown, is a miniature dance playlet in ABA form -- the two men waken and stretch in morning sun, swarm friskily around the passing Mesh like overeager puppies, and return to their siesta after a charming but fruitless bout of flirtation. There's a lot of routine busywork in the outer movements, but the unpretentious whole is mostly diverting.
Next came Judith Jamison's "Divining," a choreographic debut (in 1984) for this former leading Ailey dancer of 15 years. This fascinating, atmospheric and propulsive piece, for 14 dancers, builds on a modern dance base but achieves its distinctive flavor through a powerful admixture of African dance motifs, particularly in the use of rippling upper torsos, lashing arms, rolling hips and footwork deep into the floor. The musical score, by Kimati Dinizulu and Monti Ellison, alternates between otherwordly choral keenings and seductively syncopated Afro-Latin percussion. The whole feeling of the work is one of tribal rapport and effusion. The central, hieratic figure is beauteous Donna Wood, who has more or less inherited the Jamison mantle as Ailey's "prima ballerina." She danced last night with a real sense of possession, commanding the stage easily even with the surrounding ensemble going full tilt.
"Divining" was the first of the evening's two Washington premieres. The other, and the program's impressive conclusion, was Talley Beatty's "The Stack-Up," created in 1982 to a musical montage that ranges over jazz, blues, disco rapping and several other shades of soul. Choreographically, the piece is also an eclectic blend, but the dominant idiom is jazz -- fittingly enough for a work that is essentially a panoramic cityscape. The ambiance is set by a backdrop adapted from a Romare Bearden painting, "Under the Bridge," which shows a stretch of girders hovering over an urban skyline, with buildings like tall hulks with black eyes for windows.
Beatty has taken a swirling ensemble of 17 dancers, imaginatively dressed by costumer Carol Vollet Garner and dramatically lit by Tom Skelton, and turned it into a dynamic metaphor for the urgency, danger, speed, sexuality and grit -- in short, the feverish and risque turmoil -- of city streets. Out of the crowd, one distinguishes a quartet of chic, uptown slickers; a cool foursome with the men in berets; and another, tough-jawed quartet with armless tops and slashes of lightning on their chests as a gang logo. The principal characters -- blazingly well portrayed by Ralph Glenmore, Gary DeLoatch and Marilyn Banks -- are a couple in love, and a neurotic junkie who becomes their nemesis, in a stark ending sequence. Beatty's work is an exceptionally compelling statement by a sensitive and masterly theatrical craftsman.