It's hard to think of another company of dancers that has as stunningly immediate a visceral impact as the Ailey troupe. The space separating you and these dancers becomes a superconducting medium that offers no resistance whatever to the electricity they discharge in torrents. The vortexes of energy that bestir their bodies you feel churning in your own gut. The dance blasts its way from their solar plexus to yours, their motion becomes your emotion, the company and its audience are one dance.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House last night for its first engagement here in two years. The occasion was historic in at least two senses. This was the company's first appearance locally since Ailey's death last December at the age of 58, and its first under the banner of its new artistic director, Judith Jamison.
Ailey's loss was a heavy blow for the entire dance world, but on last night's evidence the company appears to be weathering the trauma with just the sort of pluck and vigilance that will honor his memory and spirit the most. It's far too early to gauge what success Jamison may have in carrying forward Ailey's legacy and mission, but everything about her history, personality and artistic pedigree augurs well for the troupe's development.
Jamison was, in her dancing career, one of Ailey's most consummately accomplished and inspiring proteges. In her 15-year career as an Ailey dancer, she came to embody the passion, brilliance and idealism of the troupe at its best. With Ailey's encouragement, she ventured into choreography herself and has given signs of formidable talent. She has also founded a troupe of her own, the Jamison Project (which made its Washington debut earlier this month), and has had a couple of seasons' experience facing the challenges of company leadership. She knows the Ailey dancers inside out and the kinds of anxieties and dreams they harbor -- she's been there. Her assumption of the Ailey company reins promises just the continuity, strength of purpose and vision most called for in a period of difficult transition and readjustment.
The company fittingly chose to start its run of seven performances -- featuring seven different programs abounding in new repertory and old favorites -- with an all-Ailey evening last night. No single sampling, of course, no matter how representative, could do full justice to Ailey's prodigious creative powers as one of the century's most original and prolific choreographers. Nevertheless, the program -- containing excerpts from seven works large and small ranging over three decades, as well as the complete "Revelations" -- gave far more than a hint of Ailey's remarkable breadth of invention.
"Memoria," dating from 1979, was Ailey's tribute to his friend and fellow choreographer Joyce Trisler, a sizable work set to music by pianist-composer Keith Jarrett. In the excerpt seen here, April Berry brought silky fluency and poetic ardor to the Trisler figure, in a rhapsodic ensemble number that unfolded like the opening of a blossom, with Berry at the center of a calyx of adoring disciples.
Two movements from "Night Creature," to music by Ellington, featured an aptly sassy Sarita Allen partnered first by the equally impudent David St. Charles and then by the redoubtable Ailey veteran Dudley Williams. It's an amazing work, symphonic in scope and construction, and mixing, like the sophisticated wizardry of Ellington's score, parodies of classicism with unabashed jive, juxtaposing balletic spoofs with sudden flights of jitterbugging.
Two excerpts were also seen from Ailey's last work, the ambitious 1988 tribute to pioneering Kansas City jazz pianist Jay McShann titled "Opus McShann," which hasn't been seen in Washington in its entirety. The two movements shown seemed to continue Ailey's late extrapolations of jazz dance as most notably revealed in "For Bird -- With Love," Ailey's powerful homage to Charlie Parker. In "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You," Renee Robinson and Andre Tyson were the lovers in a duet of steamy virtuosity; Gary DeLoatch and Desmond Richardson were the drolly lurching barflies in "Doo Wah Doo," fusing rubber-legged struts with realistic gestures.
Before and after the McShann came solo excerpts featuring the delicately lyrical Elizabeth Roxas in a selection from "The Lark Ascending," a Grahamesque reverie to music by Vaughan Williams, and the incomparably eloquent Dudley Williams in a portion of "A Song for You" (music by Leon Russell). Williams's wrenching stretches, back-falls and contractions seemed to encompass a lifelong emotional confession. He's one of those rare dance artists who never wastes a single motion or stance -- nothing is merely connective, preparatory or decorative; every movement is filled to the brim with expressive purpose.
The evening closed with excerpts from two of the best known Ailey classics -- "Blues Suite" and "Cry" (originally a Jamison solo) -- followed by his justly beloved "Revelations." Though all three have been seen in more perfectly realized versions in the past, Ailey's genius as an oracle of the yearning for freedom was once again made palpable by the ministrations of the dancers whose company bears his name. Outstanding in "Blues Suite" was Raquelle Chavis in her depiction of turbulent desperation; in the dithyrambic finale of "Cry," an exultant Renee Robinson; and in "Revelations," Roxas and Tyson as the fervent couple in "Fix Me, Jesus" and, once more, Williams as the clamoring spirit of "I Want to Be Ready."