IN MANY RESPECTS, dance companies operate like big families. Discipline and love go hand in hand; "parents" (artistic directors and their staffs) worry about the physical and emotional development of their "children" (dancers), carefully training them while at the same time encouraging independence and individuality. Inevitably, rivalries crop up; children leave the nest. But the true test of a family's strength comes during times of crisis.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of America's most beloved dance families, weathered a tragedy last December when its founder and namesake died at the age of 58. Yet unlike many of today's arts organizations, the 32-year-old ensemble has not faltered or fallen into disarray. Now under the astute direction of Judith Jamison -- former Ailey company superstar as well as a dynamic teacher, choreographer and administrator -- the troupe shows every indication of maintaining and enhancing its legacy of exquisitely heartfelt dancing and a wide-ranging repertoire. Though Jamison has every intention of commissioning new works from a variety of choreographers, she is intensely committed to the existing collection of pieces by Ailey, Katherine Dunham, Talley Beatty, Joyce Trisler, Billy Wilson and many other creative cousins.
The company's current week-long run here offers a clear picture of its past, present and future. This weekend alone, a spectator can take in 14 dances by eight choreographers, ranging from early Ailey landmarks such as "Revelations" (1960) and "Blues Suite" (1958) to a postmodern offering such as Donald Byrd's "Shards," first performed by the company in 1988. Additional highlights include Beatty's red-hot jazz suite "Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot," one section of which is set in an imaginary ballroom in Spanish Harlem; Ailey alumnus Ulysses Dove's dramatic, sexually charged "Episodes"; "For 'Bird' -- With Love," Ailey's unsettling evocation of the life of jazz great Charlie Parker; Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," a raw and powerful portrait of men on a chain gang; and "Sarong Paramaribo," a brief, showy blend of Asian and African styles by Ailey's mentor, Lester Horton.