The high point of a second splendid program by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center Opera House Wednesday night was the Washington premiere of Ulysses Dove's "Episodes" -- as bold, forceful and strikingly original a work as we've seen in many a moon.
The very presence of this latest Dove opus was a reminder of Ailey's sense of his company's mission. Though the late Ailey was himself a choreographer of momentous significance, the troupe he fathered and reared so lovingly was far more than a display case for his own wares. Among Ailey's most endearing traits was his unfailingly generous and abiding concern for the conservation of his nation's dance treasures. He showed particular concern for the creations of black choreographers whose works might otherwise have suffered neglect or oblivion, including those of Geoffrey Holder, Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Louis Johnson and Eleo Pomare.
Ailey also well knew that the continued vitality of any dance company depends foremost on infusions of new, innovative work, and so, alongside his own outpourings, he staged and commissioned pieces by a stream of then aspiring fledglings, among them Michael Smuin, Dianne McIntrye, Rudy Perez, Lar Lubovitch, Choo-San Goh, Bill T. Jones, Arnie Zane and Donald Byrd.
Dove was another beneficiary of Ailey's vision and largess, having received his first Ailey commission in 1979. A former Ailey dancer who has since created work for numerous international troupes and for iconoclastic theater director Robert Wilson, Dove made "Episodes" for France's Ballet de Nancy last year. The work shares with "Bad Blood" and "Vespers" -- a pair of 1986 Dove pieces -- a mysterious, demonic intensity that is one of Dove's identifying marks.
The title evokes an identically named landmark work whose two parts were created for the New York City Ballet in 1959 by George Balanchine and Martha Graham. Dove's "Episodes" doesn't allude to these masters except incidentally, but his seamless amalgam of balletic, modern-dance and gymnastic elements pays indirect homage to the spirit of rapprochement that generated the '59 milestone. In Dove's case, the word "episodes" connotes incidents in the lives of its cast of five men and four women, who interact in a sequence of brusque, spasmodic, blistering encounters.
Who are these people? Dove provides no specific social or geographical clues, and they are dressed almost identically in black. The choreography nonetheless defines them as icons of a postmodern world, a universe in which, as machines become more like humans, humans become more like machines -- sleek, cool, hard-edged, lightning fast and powered by limitless reserves of energy. Their surfaces are wiped clean of emotion, and yet it is emotion -- violent and erotic, however deeply buried -- that drives them.
There's some kind of profound kinship here with the work of another contemporary pathfinder, the American expatriate choreographer William Forsythe, artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet. Despite a multitude of differences, "Episodes" has the look and feel of much Forsythe, in its sharply fractured rhythms, its abrupt shifting of gears, the ominousness of atmosphere and the concentration on abstract essentials of relationships. There are additional correspondences, both musical and scenic. The electronic score for "Episodes," by Dove's frequent collaborator Robert Ruggieri, chugs along relentlessly, punctuated by echoing blasts that suggest a factory or battleground and relieved now and then by wanly insistent melodic fragments. And in John B. Read's brilliantly effective lighting scheme, the stage is dark except for narrow white lanes along the diagonals; the "episodes" of action, moreover, are separated by complete blackouts.
The starkness of all this is somehow countered by the speed and ferocity of the dancing, which calls for almost transcendent levels of virtuosity. The response to these demands by Wednesday night's Ailey cast -- Renee Robinson, Elizabeth Roxas, Debora Chase, Neisha Folkes, Desmond Richardson, Dwight Roden, Stephen Smith, Wesley Johnson III and Dereque Whiturs -- was nothing short of superb.
The evening began with a fine rendering of the Beatty classic "Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot," created in the same year (1960) as Ailey's "Revelations," and doing for urban jazz of the big-band era what Ailey did for the rural spirituals and gospel music that inspired the latter work, i.e., translating the music into quasi-dramatic dance visions of memorable pungency. Its manic pulse and sensuality came to particularly vivid life in the third section, "Rooftops and Stairwells," sizzlingly danced by Marilyn Banks, Gary DeLoatch, David St. Charles and Duane Cyrus; in the succeeding duet "Saved," as deftly interpreted by Raquelle Chavis and Michael Joy; and in the concluding, neo-Flamenco ensemble, "Congo Tango Palace." A rousing account of "Revelations" closed the program.