"Three by Three," the latest offering in public TV's "Dance in America" series, displays the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to splendid advantage, not only by conveying the company's special spirit in a representative trio of works, but also with the help of a lively visual style.
Two company classics -- Ailey's own "Blues Suite" and Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" -- frame Bill T. Jones' excitingly offbeat "Fever Swamp," making for satisfying stylistic contrasts and hinting at the exceptional breadth of the Ailey repertory. Each of the three choreographers appears briefly on screen to introduce the works -- hence the program's title.
"Blues Suite," as Ailey tells us, dates from the company's founding year (1958) and is an atmospheric dance portrait of the "barrel houses" the choreographer remembered from his Texas youth. The piece shows both Ailey's mastery of the jazz dance idiom and his gift for transmuting slices of life into compelling theater. The performance by an ensemble of 10 has the kind of sizzle for which the Ailey troupe is world-renowned.
To the unrelenting pulsation of Peter Gordon's score, "Fever Swamp" sets its cast of six men into a marathon of jabbing gestures, gymnastic formations and euphoric calisthenics. Recently created especially for the Ailey dancers, the piece uses their stamina and energy in an abstract context that extends the company range in a refreshing way. "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" returns to the jazz-modern fusion more typical of Ailey fare, in a powerfully stylized drama of chain-gang tribulations.
Director Patricia Birch (who staged "Grease" for Broadway) and her lighting, video and scenic design collaborators have given each dance its own appropriate visual signature -- florid colors filtered through smoky light and expressionistic camera angles for "Blues Suite"; sharp cutting and silhouettes for "Fever Swamp"; and a kind of brooding, nightmarish glow for "Rainbow." The 60-minute show airs at 9 p.m. tonight on Channel 26.