The overall impression of last night's program by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center Opera House might have been considerably stronger had the order of the program been reversed.
The evening began with a superb rendition of Hans Van Manen's poetic "Songs Without Words." Two Washington premieres followed; among them, Ulysses Dove's "Night Shade" proved an intriguing, if shallow, novelty, but Donald McKayle's "Collage" was a bomb.
This is, of course, one man's opinion, to which the audience paid little heed. Though the Van Manen did receive the most vociferous welcome, enthusiasm for the other two works wasn't markedly smaller. The spectators may well have been responding -- understandably enough -- more to the dancers than the dance. Everything the Ailey troupe does has intensity and panache -- these performers earn their cheers.
Dove, now a free-lance choreographer, was once a premed student at Howard University. He went on to dance with the Merce Cunningham company and other troupes, before joining Ailey in 1973 for a seven-year stint. "Night Shade" was made in 1982 for the Paris Opera's experimental unit, Groupe de Recherche Choreographique; Dove was its assistant director at the time. The piece has the look of European contemporary dance -- Pina Bausch is one clear influence -- though the body language owes more to this country and Africa.
The music for "Night Shade" is Steve Reich's "Drumming," a relatively early (1971) minimalist score much indebted to African percussion in its sound and hypnotically repetitive beat. Dove himself designed the startling decor, which includes a shiny fragment of high wall guarding an enormous tub of water, and rows of glass-enclosed candles upstage and down, with one larger sphere containing two candles given particular, shrinelike prominence. Against this sonic and visual background, Dove gives us a mysterious, violent, primeval, erotic-sadistic rite of obscure significance. The four men and four women of the cast, dressed in Carol Vollet Garner's crimson tights and gowns, assume simian crouches when they're not in the throes of spasmodic seizure. They threaten and subdue one another, and attempt lascivious attacks. In the end, the women pelt one particularly angry young man with stones until he drops; then they douse themselves triumphantly with water splashed from the tub -- shades of Jerome Robbins' "The Cage."
Dramatic tension is sustained throughout, but there's no legible dramatic spine or commanding metaphor -- aside from the pallid "Cage" echo -- to support or explain the action. The movement is viscerally exciting and occasionally virtuosically spectacular, but the work as a whole seems longer on theatrical skill than artistic substance.
One can see why McKayle called his work "Collage." The decor mixes slide projections of blossoms, birds, forests and sun with images of dancers. The score, by L. Subramaniam, is a slushy medley of musics from five continents. And the choreography is a chaotic compendium of cliche's and posturings from modern dance and jazz idioms. But the work, rambling and unfocused in design, really adds up more to a mishmash than a collage. Three of Ailey's finest dancers -- Donna Wood, April Berry and Dudley Williams, are virtually wasted in this context.
"Songs Without Words" would alone have made the evening worthwhile. Though danced barefoot, it's a piano ballet -- an especially fine one -- in the manner of Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering." Among the outstanding performances from the cast of eight, for sheer sublimity one must single out April Berry and Rodney Nugent in the rhapsodic Third Duet.