It's hard to show biography in dance, harder still to combine biography and eulogy. Alvin Ailey's "For Bird -- With Love," which his American Dance Theater presented last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, attempts to explain and memorialize the life of jazz musician Charlie Parker. Like Ailey's other character ballets, this one is well dressed, sincere and stylish without being slick. But all of its parts don't come together to create a satisfying theatrical event.
Ailey is more successful depicting character than incident. As always, he is helped by his dancers. Dudley Williams as The Progenitor, a Fagin-like linking figure for the ballet, is an elegant sleaze. In the opening segment, as an old man with a cane, he invents a wonderful walk, both hobbled and prideful. Gary DeLoatch is superb as the hero, depicting Bird's journey through innocence, success and depravity, all the while maintaining a fresh, boy-next-door charm.
There's some exuberant jazz dancing by Parker's fellow musicians, a tacky cat fight (complete with squeals) for his women, and an ending (possibly in Heaven) where the whole cast, dressed in red jumpsuits and strapless evening gowns, dances joyously to his music for all eternity. But the ballet doesn't show on stage anything one can't read in the program notes, and doesn't define Charlie Parker any better than the photographs used as the backdrop.
The other Ailey work shown, "Isba," is an abstact piece danced to George Winston's "Autumn." Despite the score's title, both it and the costumes (in bright whites, shocking pinks and bright blues) suggest August nights at a resort more than the mellowness of autumn. Ailey's choreography, with its heavy reliance on torso and arms, is for runners and wavers, although there is some fine, quick footwork for the men. He creates the illusion of infinite energy by sending on his dancers in shifts.
Like other contemporary choreographers, Ailey has discovered virtuosity, but, unlike other companies' dancers, who often become anonymous, mesmerized by their own perfection, his remain individuals. Their bodies are stretched to the limit to express feelings rather than technique, facial composure is shattered by ear-splitting grins, and raw energy is refined and communicated as raw emotion.