War, love and death in the desert -- the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opened its one-week run at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall with a ballet almost uncomfortably topical. Lynne Taylor-Corbett's "Prayers From the Edge," set to music from Peter Gabriel's "Passion," is "West Side Story" transposed from slum to sand.
The costumes -- harem pants, skirts or loincloths, one tribe in bright red, the other in gold -- suggest Las Vegas more than the Middle East or the Sahara, and the story of two young people from opposing tribes who fall in love in the midst of war with tragic consequences is told simplistically. But the dancers tear into it with such conviction and passion that it hardly matters. These are magnificent dancers, technically invincible, who love, fight and die with equal fervor.
Although there's violence and betrayal in "Prayers," there's tenderness, too, in the duets of the young lovers (Clifton Brown and Linda Celeste Sims). Brown radiates decency, so that when he's falsely accused of raping a woman from the rival tribe, the injustice is all the more cruel. As the one person who tries to help the young lovers and prays for all of us over their bodies at the end, Asha Thomas is a powerful presence, though the power was more from her personality than from what she was given to dance.
The choreography is generically energetic -- martial arts kicks and lunges in the opening sections, vinelike intertwinings for the young lovers -- but here, too, the dancers, with their whole-souled commitment, give the movement dimension the choreography lacks. Posters of the Ailey men could sell gym memberships, and watching such beautifully sculpted muscles gyrate, pulse and turn is a show unto itself.
Even the dancers couldn't save Ohad Naharin's "Black Milk" (from 1992, with a marimba score by Paul Smadbeck), an inscrutable exercise for five men and a pail. Except for an all-too-brief passage where the men take to the air, leaping and soaring like huge birds, the title is the most interesting thing about the work.
The pail contains a substance more akin to mud than milk; the men carefully smear it on their faces, bare chests and loose white pants. One of the men could be a Zen master or an outsider; he gets more of the mud. At the end, after some frenetic, though unfocused, group dances, the master cleanses himself with water, which the pail magically now contains. One is certain that something significant has happened, but intermission chatter focused more on "how did they change the slime to water?" than why it mattered.
Brown and Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell were the two lover-gymnasts in Elisa Monte's "Treading" (from 1979, set to music by Steve Reich). The two dancers curl their bodies into every conceivable shape, a style of dance that was once trendy but now feels dated.
As is so often the case, the company looked its best in Ailey's "Revelations." Although the taped music was a rather slick rendition of the beautiful spirituals Ailey set to music in 1960, the dancing looked refreshed this season.
"Revelations" is one of the simplest and most perfect dances ever made. It throbs with truth and humanity, and audiences never tire of it. Taylor-Corbett's "Prayers From the Edge" contains prayers for peace, survival and love. One might add a prayer for another dance as good as "Revelations." These dancers deserve it.
The company, presented jointly by the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society, dances through Saturday evening.