Dancers in the Dark

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s annual December run at the City Center boasts the customary infusion of new works, without which, it’s always assumed, no audience would enter the theater, no dancer rest content in his or her job. I managed to see three recent additions to the repertory before press time, an experience that left me longing for some of the golden oldies – even for a few of the silver and bronze ones.

Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream opens strikingly enough, with a trio of seriously gorgeous guys showing off for one another, a certain cool cruelty being part of their charms. A fourth man intrudes – to be ogled, tested, and destroyed. All this is played out in the familiar postmodern mood of alienation and impending disaster. (The vocabulary in this case is ballet-based and inflected with hieratic gesture.) After the reasonably effective start, King introduces the obligatory female contingent, whereupon he promptly loses interest in the proceedings. Things go on automatic pilot as the sexes mix (in a predictable variety of ways), the dance disintegrating into a series of glossy, hard-edged images ubiquitous in today’s fashion journals and reports on club life. The best one can say for this mediocre dose of mean, svelte stuff is that it helps balance out the surfeit of sentimental humanism that the Ailey repertoire once suffered from. But this example of the new wave is not a keeper.

Carmen de Lavallade, who lured Alvin Ailey to his first dancing lessons, and who was a memorable star in the company he founded as well as on many other stages, based her new duet, Sweet Bitter Love, on a solo she devised for herself back in 1985. Set to haunting love laments sung by Roberta Flack, the duet conjures up a man and a woman, who still feel a great deal for each other, at the moment of their resolving to end a long, troubled relationship.

De Lavallade has projected onto the character of the woman (I saw Renee Robinson in the role) the dulcet beauty for which audiences adored her. And she’s imagined an attractive male protagonist of considerable emotional depth. As performed by Glenn A. Sims, who appears to express actual thoughts as he moves, the man is fascinating for his complexity. Unfortunately, though De Lavallade gets the characters and the romantically ambivalent atmosphere right, the movement per se is banal. It lacks both invention and theatrical élan. The problem may lie in De Lavallade’s own history as a performer. Her signature roles offered an image of loveliness that one contemplated; she was cast to be passive rather than assertive, more visual than dramatic.

The Ailey’s artistic director, Judith Jamison, concocted the flimsiest of the new works on view. Her Double Exposure, commissioned by the Lincoln Center 2000 festival, is typical of that project’s bent for empty glitz. Multimedia reigns here. Highly charged dancing with no evident structure, Robert Ruggieri’s frenetic electronic score, ever-shifting but largely undefinable projections on a double-paneled backdrop, and agitated lighting effects all vie for the beleaguered viewer’s attention.

The choreography harbors a latent theme that remains obdurately vague. Two men – the elegant, sensuous Jeffrey Gerodias and Clifton Brown, swift and fierce as a switchblade – represent twinned souls. Three lavishly gowned young women serve as a chorus of goddesses, demons, or simply not very effective alternatives to whatever a guy and his alter ego can get up to on their own. Both the presumed conflict and its ostensible resolution were unfathomable. Not surprisingly, gimmicks like switches in the costume colors, between slate gray and tropical brights, failed to prod the feeble choreography into yielding significance.

The piece has one entirely terrific moment – a brief solo for Briana Reed, who, all voluptuous flesh and powerful muscle, seems to epitomize the nameless force that keeps the universe in motion. The miracle of the Ailey company is that at any given time in its 42-year history, it has served as home to not one but at least a handful of singular, unforgettable dancers like Reed. This state of affairs allows even the most exacting members of the audience to put up with an amazing amount of indifferent choreography.

the vivacity and personal charm of David Dorfman’s work, unusual in postmodern dance, easily seduce the audience for this genre, a public that may well be tiring of bleakness and inaccessibility. The choreographer’s newest pieces, To Lie Tenderly and Subverse, recently showcased at bam’s Harvey Theater, are cases in point.

Dorfman creates movement that’s robust and rough-edged, often wild, and occasionally grotesque (especially when it’s spiced with grimaces and gestures that are like mime without specific meaning). It doesn’t adhere – and barely refers – to any codified technique, thus dodging the trap of arty mannerism. Dorfman and his brave, engaging dancers look astonishingly natural performing the stuff; it might be normal body language with the energy level extravagantly upped. The accompanying scores, performed live, tend to be either hot and agitated or haunting.

The text material, beginning with the wordplay of the works’ titles, appeals to the numerous fans of postmodern dance who love language and movement equally. Written by Dorfman, it’s full of wry, witty observations, with poignant bits thrown in sparingly. The dancers manage to deliver the script as if they were born to conduct conversations from the stage. And what’s more, everyone is marvelously dressed. For one piece, the company designer, Naoko Nagata, invented a wardrobe that’s a gloss on the garb of itinerant street entertainers of centuries past, a ploy that is evocative and pointedly appropriate.

All in all, Dorfman – who looks like the retailer he once thought he was destined to be and who moves like mercury – puts on a swell show. The problem? As with almost every choreographer below the thinly populated genius level, once you’ve seen one of his dances, you’ve pretty much seen what he can do. Once you’ve seen two – especially back to back – you suspect you’ve seen one too many.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
At the City Center.
David Dorfman
At the Harvey Theater at BAM.

Dancers in the Dark