All programs of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's run at the Kennedy Center were different this year, and Thursday night at the Opera House variety meant substance. Three works were shown, with each choreographer having something to say about his art and about the human condition.
The purest piece on the program, in style and in its faith that the spirit can triumph over oppression, was "Landscape." Ailey choreographed it in 1981, Bela Bartok's centenary year, to the composer's lush Third Piano Concerto. The dancing is very much mainstream modern with a definite nod now and then to the high priestess of that tradition -- Martha Graham. Throughout, though, there is the ease of imagery that was Ailey's own. At first, and in silence, only men are on stage. At their center stands Dudley Williams, and when he casts his blessings on the ground, women appear. Drawn up, in their pink gowns, they look like a field of flower buds about to open.
The four roles that are the work's anchors embody caring and leading (Williams), passion (Marilyn Banks), keeping faith (Elizabeth Roxas) and learning and growing (Gary DeLoatch). There's much spinning at first, especially in arm motions, followed by a section in which the dancers move only in place. In an extended adagio, Roxas and DeLoatch become lovers, but their romance is engulfed by mass terror. At its very end, though, "Landscape" is not without hope.
The oldest piece on the program, John Butler's "After Eden," seemed inescapable in the decade following its 1966 premiere, turning up in many a repertory. Some people loved it, others loathed it, and for the past dozen years the latter won, causing this duet to disappear from the stage.
Thursday night's audience cheered the revival, or at least cheered the performers. As Butler's Everywoman and Everyman, desiring each other, failing to satisfy, yet condemned to remain together, Sarita Allen and Stephen Smith were emotionally strong. She, however, also met the challenge of melding the weightiness and pliancy of modern dance with ballet's clarity and articulation. Butler has combined the most contrary aspects of the two dance techniques. The woman is even required to skim the ground on point without seeming light and airborne. Allen never blurs a step yet manages to convey the massive inertia of a creature of flesh. Smith moves with a strong thrust but isn't precise enough for some of the balletics.
The couple looked suitably Adam and Eve in Rouben Ter-Arutunian's costumes as Shirley Prendergast lit them, particularly in the opening moments. Prendergast's giant moon on the backcloth, though, seems a poor substitute for the sculptural decor Ter-Arutunian designed to accompany the original Harkness Ballet production.
The closing piece, "Shards," a Washington premiere, was choreographed in 1988 by Donald Byrd, who earlier this season made audiences here sit up and take notice when he performed and presented three works at Dance Place. In "Shards," Byrd smashes ballet technique by requiring the dancers to go to extremes. Steps are delivered angrily, at machine gun pace. Balances are held as if time had stopped. Bends are very low, extensions very high. The women don't wear toe shoes, though their costumes are crosses between tutus and Victorian underwear. The men are dressed casually, in loose shirts and slacks, all blue. Everyone has a piece of glittering jewelry.
Strangely, the result of such forcing and whimsy looks totally classical. No matter how broken a movement, its linear sense is maintained. The breaks themselves have the effect of caesuras in a line of verse. In the longest, stillest pose, the dancer's energy isn't allowed to die. "Shards" is an analysis of ballet, a stylization of free movement and a vision of a frantic, lonely world. The dancers interact aplenty but don't take cognizance of each other.
In this workout, all 12 performers -- Dana Hash, Andre Tyson, Roxas, Renee Robinson, Nasha Thomas, Raquelle Chavis, Debora Chase, Desmond Richardson, Smith, Dereque Whiturs, Dwight Rhoden and Wesley Johnson III -- were soloists. Gabriel Berry designed the costuming for "Shards" and Mio Morales composed the percussive, explosive, droning music.
All the music at these performances was recorded, which suited Morales' score better than Lee Hoiby's for "After Eden." The Bartok for "Landscape" would have been especially nice to hear live.