The phrase "living history book" seems especially apt in describing Friday night's performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. During the course of this slightly strange and always compelling program of five diverse works, a spectator had ample opportunity to study not only 40 years' worth of shifting modern dance styles, but also the drastic ways in which our cultural landscape has changed.

By far the most arresting juxtaposition of dances was that of George Faison's "Suite Otis" (1971) with Ulysses Dove's "Episodes" (1989). The former, a string of sassy numbers set to the songs of Otis Redding, is very much a good-time romp, full of high kicks, street jive and punchy unison sequences, but it's also an essay on the vagaries of love. The feisty women and strutting men who populate the stage spend most of their time wrangling and flirting with one another, but there's a touching side to their embraces as well.

The fierce and troubling "Episodes" shows us just how violent, paranoid and loveless our society has become. It too focuses on the ongoing "battle between the sexes," but in this case the dancers interact in a relentless risk-filled war. To the chilling blasts of Robert Ruggieri's terrifying score, four women and five men -- all in provocative black garb -- hurl themselves and each other into blatantly sexual positions, then stride away like robots. Dove has brilliantly captured this age of mistrust, AIDS and abuse; after experiencing this dance, "Suite Otis" seems an absolute fairy tale.

The oddity of the evening was the Washington premiere of "Sarong Paramaribo," a brief section from "Estilo de Ti," a suite choreographed by Ailey mentor Lester Horton in 1950. Originally created as a solo, "Sarong" has been recently restaged as a unison quintet of elegant women by former Horton and Ailey dancer Carmen de Lavallade (for whom the role was created 40 years ago).

Set to Les Baxter's "Jungle River Boat," a bizarre combination of gamelan orchestra and a Montovani-style rendering of traditional Japanese music, the piece begins in pseudo-Indonesian fashion, with the performers mincing about in strapless orange and silver gowns with trains, curving their arms about, twittering their fingers and bobbing their heads like marionettes. Gradually the lower halves of their bodies commence moving in a decidedly African style -- their hips sway and their backsides rotate gleefully. The effect is rather like seeing one of those composite photos in which a woman's head adorns a man's body, or any contrasting combination of that sort.

Rounding out the program were two very different pieces by Ailey: "Reflections in D," a short, poetic distillation of Duke Ellington's composition of the same name, performed by company veteran Dudley Williams; and "Streams," a somber group processional inspired by the music of Czechoslovakian composer Miloslav Kabelac.

The performance quality throughout the evening was nothing short of astonishing. Those performers who shone particularly brightly included "Suite Otis's" rascally Marilyn Banks; Dereque Whiturs and Desmond Richardson, the virtuosic duo of "Streams"; and the whole fearless cast of "Episodes."