When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater begins a week of performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night, it will mark the first time the popular troupe has been in Washington for three years. The company is no stranger to Washington, however, or to the Opera House, for that matter.
"I love the hall," said Ailey in a recent phone talk from his New York headquarters. "We really feel at home there. After all, we opened the place."
Indeed, the first event ever presented at the Kennedy Center -- Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," on Sept. 8, 1971 -- was choreographed by Ailey, and his company did the spectacular dancing. That same year, American Ballet Theatre performed "The River," with music by Duke Ellington, a work that company had commissioned from Ailey. Since then, Ailey and his troupe have been regular performers here, sometimes twice in a year, at both the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap.
Since the company's last visit, its repertory has grown by leaps and bounds. The Kennedy Center programs contain no fewer than eight Washington premieres, including two works by Ailey himself. What strikes one most forcibly about the bill of fare, though, is its range -- besides Ailey, 10 choreographers are represented, running from such established figures as Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, George Faison, Louis Johnson and Billy Wilson, to postmodernist Elisa Monte and Europe's dramatically inclined Hans Van Manen, among others. Perhaps more than any other troupe on the contemporary scene, the Ailey company reflects the truly pluralistic character of American dance, and that has been Ailey's intention.
Ailey's enthusiasm for the company's new repertory is contagious. Of "Night Shade" by former Ailey dancer Ulysses Dove, now a free-lance choreographer, Ailey says, "It's very imagistic. It's got a tub of water, a steel wall, a circle of 30 candles. And the music is Steve Reich's score, 'Drumming.' " The decor is Dove's own. The Reich composition is one of his early pulse music pieces, much influenced by the composer's study of African percussion on a trip to Ghana in 1970.
Then there's Beatty's "The Stack-Up," choreographed in 1982. "It's a street ballet," says Ailey, "with a lot of social commentary. The music, by groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, is real funky, and the steps are wonderful. The backdrop is adapted from a painting by Romare Bearden. The dancing features a gang of four, a girl and a guy, and in the end it becomes a sort of treatise on the tragedy of drug abuse."
One of the Ailey premieres is "For Bird -- With Love," choreographed last year as a tribute to Charlie (Bird) Parker, with music by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Jerome Kern.
"It's had a checkered history," Ailey says. "It was commissioned by Kansas City, and it started out there very long, an hour and 10 minutes. I was trying to sum up the whole be-bop era. Then we took it to Europe, and I whittled it down to 47 minutes. I still think of it as an experiment with time -- it's very slow moving, full of repetition, very expressive. It used to have a lot of speaking in it, too, but that got cut out. It's more distilled now, and I'm even making another cut for Washington -- another three minutes are going." In 15 scenes, the work is a kind of affectionate profile of Parker in music and dance.
Ailey's other recent work, "Isba," created in 1983, is what he calls a "mating ritual" for 12 dancers to music by George Winston. "The title is just something I made up," he says. "I meant it to suggest a place, a time, a woman's name, with maybe something a little Eastern about it."
The company itself has also seen changes since it was last in town, and Ailey waxes particularly keen on two newcomers. "There are two young guys who'll blow you away," he says. "One's a 19-year-old, Steven Smith, from Baltimore, who studied at Doris Jones' Capitol Ballet School in Washington -- he's a dynamo. The other, Jonathan Riseling, was in our apprentice group -- he's 20, and short, quick and compact."
Ailey is constantly on the hunt for new repertory. After the current tour ends in May, following visits to San Diego, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Houston and Philadelphia, the company will rehearse for its first "Dance in America" series program for public television, to be shot in Switzerland in June. The following month, three new works will be added to the roster, by Louis Johnson, Jennifer Muller and the choreographic team of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.
"I'd love to do more of the older material as well," Ailey says. "We've been talking about reviving a Katherine Dunham piece, for example, and I'd just love to do things like Doris Humphrey's 'With My Red Fires' or Jose' Limo'n's 'Missa Brevis.' The trouble is, it's almost impossible to find funding for revivals. There are pieces of my own I'd like to bring back at this point -- "Masekela Langage" and "Streams," for instance -- but it's a real strain on the pocketbook."
Still, Ailey can't help ruminating about work he'd like to see the company do. He reels off names of choreographers whose work he admires -- Jiri Kylian, Robert Cohan, Meredith Monk, David Gordon, Kenneth King, Pina Bausch. He says he's trying to talk Merce Cunningham into staging his 1956 "Nocturnes," with decor by Robert Rauschenberg, and says he'll also talk to Trisha Brown about doing something. Ailey himself will be choreographing a new work for the troupe next January; the following month, he'll be creating a ballet for the Royal Danish Ballet. Helgi Tomasson, soon to become artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, has asked him for a new work, Ailey says, and he hopes to tackle that project a little later on.
There's a lot more on Ailey's plate, however, than running his company and choreographing for it. He wants, for example, to add a children's theater -- with kids choreographing and performing for other kids -- to the other thriving enterprises of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, which includes Ailey's school with an enrollment of 5,000. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, the administrative and fund-raising umbrella for the main company and its junior Repertory Ensemble, the school and community outreach programs, has an annual budget of about $4 million.
A three-year, $400,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, awarded in 1983 and requiring a 3-to-1 match, has been a considerable help, but the battle to stay afloat doesn't get easier, Ailey says. "We covered the challenge, with a lot of yanking, tugging and pushing. But it's the same struggle it always was. Everyone's out there scrambling for the same bucks. And it takes so much time -- proposals, calls, visits, consultations, forms -- it's a never-ending process."
Nevertheless, the Ailey company has weathered the storm for more than 25 years -- the company was founded in 1958 -- and performed all over the world to resounding acclaim. The abiding frustration for Ailey is the seemingly unavoidable barrier between escalating ticket prices and the audiences he'd like to reach -- especially black audiences.
"My dream was always trying to make a popular company, a company for all the people. The irony of our situation is that when we get big enough to play places like the Metropolitan Opera or the Kennedy Center, the people I want to dance for can't afford to come."
The Ailey troupe will present a total of seven performances, each with a different program, at the Opera House, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. next Sunday. Older Ailey favorites to be seen during the Opera House run include "Revelations," "Night Creature" and "Cry." Other area premieres include Judith Jamison's "Divining"; McKayle's "Collage"; a revival of Todd Bolender's "The Still Point"; and Loris Beckles' "Anjour," a tribute to dancer Dudley Williams -- a leading Ailey dancer for more than 20 years -- with music by Keith Jarrett.