Watching and listening to Saturday night's and yesterday afternoon's performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was a sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes frustrating and consistently instructive experience. The awe came primarily in response to the dancers, one of the most collectively and individually luminous groups that this writer can recall. The frustration was the result of the structural and dramatic emptiness of certain works. One could, however, learn a great deal by attending to the way these miraculous performers imbued even the flimsiest work with spirit, from two different dancers' interpretation of the same solo, and from every aspect of a legendary work like Ailey's signature piece, "Revelations."

During the course of these two programs at the Kennedy Center, four older works -- Ailey's "Night Creature," "Cry" and "Revelations" and Louis Johnson's "Sontessa and Friends" -- made their first, and in all but one case their last, appearance of the run. "Sontessa," an airheaded romp involving a grand dame, scantily clad male clowns, a macho man and young lovers, was pumped up by the superb timing and comedic instincts of April Berry, Ralph Glenmore, Rodney Nugent, Masazumi Chaya and the rest of the cast.

Experiencing the three Ailey works in reverse chronological order, one saw how an artist can begin his career using the most personal and basic ideas and movements and dilute or even abandon them over time. "Night Creature" (1975), choreographed to music of Duke Ellington, is an uncomfortable mix of jazz and ballet, thoroughly lacking in specifics of character and mood. "Cry" (1971), a paean to "black women everywhere, especially our mothers," sends its lone female dancer through an affecting series of gestures that connote labor, anguish, defiance and jubilation. Saturday night, Donna Wood came off as a noble, queenly sort, while yesterday afternoon, Barbara Pouncie approached the role in a far more literal and down-and-dirty way.

As for "Revelations" (1960), one can only marvel at the simplicity, the intensity and the universality of this spiritual-infused masterpiece. The audience shouted its approval.