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Flash Review 1, 12-4: Rocking in the Bosom of Ailey
Modern Dance's Hit Company Creates a Frenzy

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 Darrah Carr

NEW YORK -- Alvin Ailey dancers are the rock stars of modern dance. As seen Friday at City Center, they blaze through "Revelations" and are met with wild applause and a standing ovation. Several curtain calls later, the lights dim as if it's time to go, but then they jump into an encore of "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." Like a favorite classic, everyone knows the words, everyone claps along, and no one ever tires of it. It is truly rockin.' How do they inspire such frenzied fans? By mastering that celebrity blend of seeming to be familiar, yet actually being untouchable.

Sections of Alvin Ailey's classic "Revelations" play with recognizable human characteristics, such as the finale's sassy, fan whipping women and their flirtatious banter with the male chorus. At other times, in the duet "Fix Me Jesus," for example, the dancers resonate with absolutely unearthly grace. Within these alternating states of emotion lies the work's ability to show us both what we know and what we only yearn for. This, in turn, gives "Revelations" its enduring appeal.

"Blues Suite," the other Ailey classic on the bill Friday, takes a slightly different approach, relying primarily on the familiar and gestural to communicate. A little prop heavy, the choreography paints wordless character sketches with the aid of a high held umbrella, a floppy feathered hat, or a stool to slump over. A favorite is "Backwater Blues," a duet for Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Amos J. Machanic Jr, which perfectly embodies the "I can neither live with you nor without you" state of a fighting couple. Their partnering, flawlessly executed, aptly conveys the power struggle embedded in the choreography. The company's high energy rendition of "Yancey Special" and "Sham" was carried even higher by the powerful singing of Ella Mitchell.

Ronald K. Brown's new work, "Serving Nia," brought a nice contrast to the program, for it is more abstract in style than the Ailey classics. His movement vocabulary is a blend of ballet, modern, hip-hop, and traditional African dance. This is a potent mix. Dancers walk casualy on-stage and then, without warning, burst into colorful displays of rich, lush movement. High extensions whip out from undulating torsos, while arms slice through space to complement powerful jumps. Brown's spatial design is dense and layered. He is a fan of asymmetry and often has three or more phrases going at once. This tendency never overloads the eye, however, for Brown also knows how and when to juxtapose movement and stillness. Often a line of dancers will stand still like lines of sentries, while one shimmers tirelessly between them. Brenda Dolan's spectacular lighting design provided the environment for this visual feast, including one particularly breathtaking backdrop of pinprick stars. Unfortunately, the piece seemed to trail off, rather than finish with an exclamation point, as such magnificent dancing would have warranted.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater runs through December 31 at City Center.

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