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Jack Anderson

What's New at Ailey

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
New York City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Nov. 29-Dec. 31, 2006
Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.,
Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., New Year's Eve at 7 p.m., $25-$110
Tickets: (212) 581-1212 or www.alvinailey.org or www.nycitycenter.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Dec. 23, 2006

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's winter seasons at the City Center have become welcome alternatives (or, some might say, antidotes) to the "Nutcracker" epidemics that sweep through this region annually. The performances I attended were packed, audiences were enthusiastic (usually with good reason) and, in addition to many old favorites ("Revelations," of course, among them), there were new pieces and revivals.

The revivals included two entertaining works by Ailey himself to Duke Ellington. Yet it must be admitted that one of them can probably never be as effective today as it was at its premiere. That's "Pas de Duke," Ailey's impish duet of 1976 for Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Back then, its tomfoolery depended in great part upon the stage personalities of its stars and their discrepancies in height: Jamison threatened to overwhelm Baryshnikov. That height difference may explain why there is little actual partnering in "Pas de Duke:" balletic pas de deux conventions of tall and short just did not suit this pairing.

The revival does not try to duplicate the original height differences and, of course, no present Ailey dancers could equal their roles' illustrious predecessors. Nevertheless, "Pas de Duke" remains fun; thus, at one performance, Asha Thomas and Clifton Brown danced so sassily together that their steps became kinetic wisecracks.

"The River," commissioned by American Ballet Theatre in 1970, bears a program note by Ellington in which the composer lauds "the wellspring of life" and "the heavenly anticipation of rebirth." The work itself is much less flowery, being a suite of dances in which each episode emphasizes some distinct movement quality. The revival, supervised by Masazumi Chaya, does much to make these qualities distinct. The Ailey company can always dance energetically. But Chaya's staging demonstrated that it can also respect dynamic nuances: this was a flowing as well as a roaring choreographic river.

"The Golden Section" remains the one choreographically viable section from "The Catherine Wheel," Twyla Tharp's muddled Broadway production of 1981 with music by David Byrne. Its propulsive leaps and kicks are spectacular and the Ailey ensemble's virtuosity prompted cheers. Yet the dancers also seemed rather self-conscious, as if they had not mastered the transitions between the stunts, and this sense of contrivance gave "The Golden Section" some brassy moments.

The premieres could be called misty mystic quests. Although both surely concerned spiritual journeys, the reasons for the journeys and their destinations remained vague. Wearing odd white costumes by Peter Speliopoulos that resembled underwear and moving to music by Lou Harrison across a stage with colored hangings by David Salle and EJ Corrigan, dancers twisted sinuously and serenely through Karole Armitage's "Gamelan Gardens." People came and went, often prettily, but for no discernible reason. And whereas Harrison's chiming gamelan sounds could be bright as crystal as well as serene, Armitage's choreography, in comparison, was too often bland.

The motivations for events in Uri Sands's "Existence Without Form," to echoing music by Christian Matjias, were usually obscure. Yet choreographic contrasts enlivened the work, as when moments of immobility were juxtaposed with progressions upstage by dancers who usually kept their backs to the audience, thereby suggesting that they had entered a world all their own. Later, deliberately ungainly scrambles gave way to passages in which two women darted lightly in and out and, during the finale, people filled the stage as if pulled there by a magnetic force. "Existence Without Form" may have been dramatically baffling, as well as cryptically titled; nevertheless, Sands made it striking to watch.

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