Disserving Nia

Where...When? Alvin Ailey dancers in Judith Jamison's Here...Now.Photo: Paul Kolnik

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, at the City Center through New Year’s Eve, is offering the most gorgeous dancing you ever did see. This is, admirably, par for the course, as is, I’m sorry to say, the mediocrity of the season’s two new works.

Ronald K. Brown, who has his own company, Evidence, worked for the Ailey troupe once before, two years ago. On that occasion, he produced Grace, a ritualistic piece – Brown is deeply into spiritual matters – of fierce beauty and clear, theatrically effective structure. Brown’s current effort, Serving Nia, confirms his considerable talent – this time through the lush charms of its vocabulary, a suave fusion of jazz and African dance.

The organization of this piece, however, is gravely flawed. The dance, for nine people, begins by playing individuals and their vehement idiosyncrasies against a small, tight-knit society. The homogeneous clan observes the heretics with calm, tolerant attention, gradually absorbing them so that the potentially abrasive distinction between “us” and “them” begins to dissolve. This process glides along to what looks to be its midpoint with a laziness you’re willing to allow because the movement – at once undulating and percussive – is so hypnotically lovely. And then, without warning, the damned thing comes to an abrupt halt, cut off as if the choreographer had been called away on more compelling business or suffered a drastic funding cut. This incompleteness and nonresolution is such a cheat, the thwarted viewer is inclined to think less of everything that went before. If you forgive Serving Nia at all, it’s because the choreography makes each of its performers seem unique in physical and emotional temperament yet part of a whole that comes into being through – well, grace.

Here … Now, by the Ailey’s artistic director, Judith Jamison, is intended as a tribute to the Olympic runner Florence Griffith Joyner – FloJo to fans inspired by her glamour and grit. On a stage lent interest by a boomerang-shaped ramp, three men and three women in jazzed-up sports gear strut their stuff to a Wynton Marsalis score concocted for the occasion. Their gyrations and twinings are meant to illustrate themes identified in the program as “Speed,” “Strength,” “Style,” “Pain,” and “Heaven” (Griffith Joyner died young). Bonding, though not mentioned, gets its share of attention, too, being another issue common to dancers and jocks. Despite this fancy setup, the movement is banal – boilerplate dance stuff pointedly inflected with athletic moves – and disjointed.

Three duets form the heart of the piece (though their relationship to the announced themes is tenuous). The first, a gloss on the lindy-hop craze of the thirties, sassily performed by Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Clifton Brown, is mild fun. For no apparent reason, it segues into a business-as-usual bluesy passage. Next on the increasingly baffling agenda comes an apache dance for Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines and Glenn A. Sims that is not merely gorgeous but also the one authentic moment in the piece. It’s utterly clear about the sexual pleasure of the victim, and it steals the show. The third duet, featuring the FloJo character – danced with sweet dignity by Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, partnered by Matthew Rushing – should, logically, top everything that went before. Alas, it’s inconsequential. And the ensuing finale, capped by what I assume is our heroine’s entrance into Paradise, is dismayingly feeble. A solemn cross-stage parade – echoing the opening, in which the heroine is swathed in a gleaming gossamer cloak – is pageantry, not choreography.

For the most part, the stage pictures in Here … Now are like poster art that the dancers are simply animating. Perhaps one shouldn’t ask more from a piece that was created for the “arts festival” element of the Olympics, where eye-seizing decoration and an “inspirational” theme are what’s wanted.

Unfortunately, a lot of the Ailey repertory has been made in this mode. The subtle and the enigmatic – those myriad shades of gray that give a work of art resonance – have been sacrificed to the desire for a dazzling impact coupled with received ideas it would seem churlish to rebut. Could the Ailey remain popular, I wonder, if it offered a little more complexity, a little less canned sentiment and flash?

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater
At the City Center; through December 31.

Disserving Nia