Alvin Ailey’s Success Story: Dancers Who Can Do Anything

We have no more successful dance company today than the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and after the first 10 days of their current five-week season at the City Center, it’s easy to see why: Under the brilliant leadership of Judith Jamison, Ailey gives us ethnic and spiritual subject matter, a canny mixture of musical approaches, eye-compelling costumes and lighting effects, and, in Revelations , a surefire audience-grabber. But above all, there’s the quality of the 31 men and women who make up the company. They are the real revelation.

This is a young bunch of dancers. Only three of them were with the company before 1990-the eternal Dudley Williams, who joined in 1964(!), Renee Robinson and Désirée Vlad. In other words, these are Ms. Jamison’s dancers: She’s been in charge for the 10 years since Alvin Ailey’s death. She inherited a substantial repertory, much goodwill and, perhaps most importantly, a school that teaches, trains and coaches legions of capable new dancers. She also must have something that can’t be inherited-the instincts and talents of a leader-because her dancers dance joyfully, with complete conviction and commitment. They’re great-looking, they’re both athletic and musical, and they’re unaffected and collegial-after an all-out performance, they’re grinning with pleasure and friendliness. How could an audience not love them?

Though the dancers are listed democratically (alphabetically, that is), dance isn’t democratic. Some people are just so talented or have such electric personalities that they simply grab your attention and hold it; Ms. Jamison herself was such a dancer. In today’s company, the mesmerizing performer is Matthew Rushing. This small, slim young man, with his shaven head and muscular arms, has everything. He’s both a jumper and a balancer. The dynamic and precise articulation and thrust of every gesture are riveting, and yet he’s supple and lyrical. He’s dapper and he’s smouldering. Most important, every moment is totally focused and filled, though he never demands attention by selling himself: Yes, he’s modest, too. And Mr. Rushing’s qualities reflect or echo those of the entire male contingent-these guys are dynamite. Dudley Williams is saved for special occasions that demand his gravity and weight of experience, but Uri Sands, Amos J. Machanic Jr., Richard Witter and a dozen or so others are out there in piece after piece dancing their feet off and bringing down the house.

Featured among the women is the beautiful veteran Renee Robinson, who tends to be cast in Wisdom roles-the spiritual mother, the real mother, the tribal mother. Oddly, I found her less effective as, say, the umbrella lady in Revelations than in a wild solo in Ronald K. Brown’s new Grace . Here, her womanliness took on an unleashed and convincing sexuality that seemed to be saying, “Don’t count me out!” Linda-Denise Evans is strong and glamorous-she was entrusted with Ailey’s famous 1971 solo dance for Jamison, Cry , a tribute to African-American women. She scrubs, she struts, she grieves, she defies. (With her high forehead, her hair up in a bun, her contractions, her manipulations of cloth, she’s also a tribute to Martha Graham.) Linda Càceres, too, is invaluable in a variety of major roles. But the one who steals your attention and your heart is a bone-thin creature named Dwana Adiaha Smallwood. She’s a little dynamo-all jagged movement and twitchy gesture, fierce and gamine at the same time. This is what Josephine Baker must have been like: a rag doll with sass. Let’s hope some choreographer finds a way of broadening her range; fierce gamines can wear out their welcome.

There were three premieres in the early days of the season. C-Sharp Street-B-Flat Avenue is a rave-up by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, head of Urban Bush Women. It’s a “Dancing in the Streets” kind of ballet, to, among other things, music by David Murray and words (there are lots of words to be heard at Ailey) by Ntozake Shange. It’s colorful, it’s funky, it’s fun, and it’s forgettable. Donald Mc-Kayle’s Danger Run , to Frederic Rzewski’s “4 North American Ballads,” is more ambitious in theme-a stagewide mural signals that what we’re dealing with here is the African-American diaspora and the black experience of America. Like so much of this repertory, Danger Run is too long and too repetitive; it’s as if Ailey and his followers don’t think we’ll get the point if they don’t protract things endlessly. But Mr. McKayle is an experienced choreographer who knows how to put steps together, and he’s been wise enough to give us piano accompaniment-relief, after days of pounding drums!-and to employ an extraordinary costume designer, Omatayo Wunmi Olaiya.

By far the best new piece-in fact, the best new piece I’ve seen this year-was Mr. Brown’s Grace . The dancers are dressed in either white or red, which presumably represent grace and its opposite or absence. At times, the two groups interact; at other times, the serene white figures pass through the whirling reds unnoticed. At the end, suddenly, everyone has achieved a state of white grace. But whatever it’s all intended to mean, the work is filled with beauty and excitement, employing Ailey vocabulary yet very much in its own language. It’s the one serioso piece I saw during the season that never drifted into portentousness.

There were, of course, a number of works by Ailey himself-the predictable Streams and the not quite successful collaboration with Duke Ellington, The River , made originally for American Ballet Theater. Both pieces reveal Ailey’s strong ballet background and interests-in The River as danced today we see a woman bourréeing across the stage, but not on point as she was at A.B.T. There are entrechats and gargouillades and air turns-it’s a ballet, all right, but it’s also very Graham-inflected, contractions and all. Pas de Duke , an Ailey-Ellington pièce d’occasion made for Ms. Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov back in 1976, lacks point without them. Those latter two works were part of an Ellington tribute that enjoyed live music from the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. (Why can’t the hugely successful-and, one assumes, financially viable-Ailey company afford live music for its season? Even foolproof Revelations , offered on 24 of the 38 programs, sprang to greater life those two times when it was performed with musicians and singers in the pit.)

There was also a Judith Jamison evening-three ballets that showed more aspiration than accomplishment, although her revision of the 1984 Divining gave Mr. Rushing one of his most exciting opportunities, which he seized. Hymn , a collaboration with Anna Deavere Smith based on interviews with the company and in tribute to the late Mr. Ailey, is heavy in its use of the word “spirit” and more than a touch sentimental. And finally there was Lettres d’Amour , an attack of Euro-erotica by a choreographer named Redha, to music ranging from Arvo Part to Ryuchi Sakamoto and Einstürzende Neubauten. Multiculturalism is all very well, but not at this length, and not on this level of elaborate and frenzied inconsequentiality.

Because the dancers have been so soundly prepared in the Ailey school-prepared in modern dance, ballet (the older students take nine or 10 ballet classes a week), West African, jazz, Spanish, classical Indian, tap-they can do just about anything. Yet the overall company style, which still shows Ailey’s original influences (Katherine Dunham and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with a large injection of Graham), is consistent and solid. As for the repertory-well, why shouldn’t the Ailey company suffer from the same problems as everyone else? The rousing, gospelly Revelations hasn’t worn out its welcome yet, but how many explorations into black America’s African roots can one repertory contain? Dancers this good make you want to see them in works outside their immediate range- Fancy Free , say, or Diversion of Angels . Imagine Mr. Rushing and Ms. Smallwood tearing into Rubies ! It will never be: The coherence of its repertory is undoubtedly part of the Ailey success story. Its audience knows what it’s getting, and loves it.