Saving Grace

Amazing: Ailey dancers in Ronald K. Brown's new Grace.Photo: Johan Elbers

More than once during the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s annual December-long stint at the City Center, I found myself wondering, Does anyone really come to see this company for the choreography? Like other major repertory companies, the Ailey offers two or three new works each season, novelty being essential to publicity and to keeping the dancers happy as well. This year, new pieces were commissioned from Ronald K. Brown, Donald McKayle, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar; by 2001, the dances they created will most likely be forgotten. Of course, the Ailey maintains a goodly chunk of its founder’s oeuvre, which ostensibly defines the company’s aesthetic. In truth, however, this body of work contains only a few indisputable winners, the balance being discursive variations on same. Revivals of landmark pieces in black-dance history come (with fanfare) and go (slinking out quietly, as if they weren’t so compelling after all). And, not unnaturally, Judith Jamison, Ailey’s crackerjack successor as artistic director, contributes her own choreography to the repertoire. Alas, though she is as dazzlingly effective a company leader as she was a performer, Jamison is only a mediocre dance-maker.

All in all, while the Ailey repertoire embodies sentiments – especially about the black experience – to which, as it is said, every heart returns an echo, choreography is not the company’s strong suit. Its real glory lies in performance. One comes to the Ailey for the lushness, the precisely focused energy, and the deep human dimension of the dancing. The company has a long tradition of encouraging its members to project their own compelling physical (and, yes, spiritual) identities. After a decade of Jamison’s running the show – significantly abetted by her second-in-command, Masazumi Chaya – technical prowess has been beefed up, too; there’s not a slack or unmotivated move to be seen. What’s more, this bevy of unique individuals has been honed into a unit seemingly guided by mutual purpose – indeed, by a common vision. The result is enormously resonant dancing, which cries out for better vehicles.

For the record: Ronald K. Brown’s Grace was the most effective of the new pieces. It falls into the popularization-of-postmodernism category, drawing upon the explorations of distancing and repetition made by Lucinda Childs and Laura Dean. Brown may not even know firsthand the themes and devices of these pioneering postmodernists; they’re simply in the air, ripe for being made accessible to the crowd. Brown does just that, warming up a ferocious ritual with an emotional subtext. His audience is duly wowed.

Donald McKayle’s Danger Run is one of those “Roots” items one publicly dislikes at one’s peril, because its subject is a difficult and noble one – the odyssey of blacks in America. Working in the mid-century modern mode that has been his forte, McKayle gives us a goddess who guides a heroic Mr. Africa, an ensemble of the downtrodden, and hope and triumph summed up in a panorama of the sort painted on the brick walls of well-intentioned public schools. He gives us these elements with a triteness and naïveté that are painfully embarrassing.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s C Sharp Street-B Flat Avenue is, uncharacteristically for this highly sociopolitical choreographer, an easy romp based on the premise that music can be a people’s heartbeat. Superficially colorful, lively, and entertaining, this dance is instantly forgettable. Zollar remains far more potent when she dwells on misery, armed with righteous outrage.

The Ailey dilemma – fabulous dancing, expendable choreography – has been evident throughout the troupe’s 41-year existence. Today the situation takes on a particularly ironic twist, as companies with prestigious repertoires fail to honor their legacy, regularly sacrificing the old and excellent to the new and gimmicky, and presenting the works that created their once-lustrous reputation in a manner that ranges from sleekly mechanized to careless and uncomprehending. The Ailey, consistently treating less-than-marvelous material with lavish skill, warmth, and devotion, is ripe for the advent of the new century’s choreographer of genius. He or she cannot arrive too soon.

Saving Grace