Ailey Wrestles With Its Curse; Varone Bursts Out in Triumph

Another December, another Alvin Ailey season. How many ways can a guy find to say the same thing yet another time: terrific dancing, stunted repertory. The success of the Ailey company is one of the great ongoing stories in American dance. What explains it? A major part of the answer certainly lies in the company’s repertory cornerstone, the sure-fire Revelations , which inevitably anchors every season. This year it closed 26 of the company’s 39 New York programs, and I’m sure that every one of those performances was greeted with delirious enthusiasm. No matter how often you see it, every time those ladies in their billowy, white, ruffled dresses flash their parasols and sashay across the stage, your heart rises. The dancers’ despair over slavery, their fear of damnation, their joy in baptism and revival (and gossip), and the stirring, gospelly music sweep away all resistance. And why resist? You don’t have to be ashamed of loving Revelations , with all its theatrical and emotional abundance, because it’s not only appealing, it’s well-made: There’s tension and excitement in the way it’s built. It’s both inspiring and smart.

The company understandably makes consistent efforts to keep alive the rest of Ailey’s large output (he died in 1989), but however striking some of his theatrical effects are, his post- Revelations work-and that means almost everything after 1960-is low in imagination, constricted in vocabulary, sloppily constructed and overreliant on extra-dance considerations. That’s the curse of Revelations : The company couldn’t exist without it, yet it makes everything else they do look feeble in comparison.

This year saw Ailey’s The River back in the repertory, a piece with an unusual history: It was first made for American Ballet Theater in 1970, with the dancers on point. Its Duke Ellington score helped make it something of a trendy success back then, but when it’s been danced by Ailey’s own company, its weaknesses have been all too apparent-it doesn’t hang together, it just lurches from one episodic fragment to the next. This year, a disparate group of ballet dancers was imported to honor the work’s original ballet impulse. They came from Pennsylvania Ballet, Colorado Ballet, La Scala, Ballet Florida, Prague Ballet, and they should all have stayed home. These were for the most part provincial dancers, who further diluted The River , which is already diluted Ailey. Only the “Falls” section came alive, in which four of the company’s own men demonstrated just what makes the company really tick: thrilling man-power.

There were a number of other revivals and new works-there always are, in the management’s decades-long search for a new Revelations . (The closest thing they’ve got is Ronald K. Brown’s Grace , which this year was looking more and more slam-bang and less and less full of grace.) A new piece by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Prayers from the Edge , was particularly depressing. It’s a seven-part work in which two tribes or clans-one dressed in red, one in gold (as opposed to the two groups in Grace , who are dressed in red and white )-are bitter enemies, except for a boy in red and a girl in gold who fall for each other. And just like Romeo and Juliet, they end up dead, though not before we’ve weathered a number of violent encounters between the tribes. Most of the dancers’ time is spent in athletic charging about the jungle with arms widespread, but for a change of pace there’s a drearily insipid, conventional balletic duet-lots of swirling around-and a final calm-after-the-storm Prayer for Peace. This overextended piece is set to Twin Peaks– ish music by Peter Gabriel.

Back in the rep was Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter , now with an all-male cast. (Made on Zollar’s Urban Bush Women back in 1988, it had an all-female cast.) It’s mostly about homelessness and outcastness, and it’s got both music by Junior (Gabu) Wedderburn and recited texts, one of them titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place at the Intersection of Reduced Resources and Reverberating Rage.” There’s a lot of crawling around, and a dynamic performance by one of the youngest men in the company, Abdur-Rahim Jackson. Ailey’s battalions of terrific male dancers just keep on coming.

A revival from 1979 of Elisa Monte’s Treading was a relatively welcome contrast to all the macho posturing. As a leading Graham dancer, Monte naturally employed Graham elements in this piece, danced the night I saw it by Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell and the omnipresent and valuable crew-cut Clifton Brown. There are also touches of Jerome Robbins’ The Cage : She hangs from him, crawls through his legs-it’s a mating marathon. But in its sculptural, sensual way, it’s a serious effort, with some kind of shape to it.

Another revival, the late Billy Wilson’s The Winter in Lisbon , didn’t have much choreographic interest-lots of huge lifts and playing with hats, with a final section, “Manteca,” that was more party than dance-but Fisher-Harrell and Brown did their effective thing again, and Matthew Rushing gave us a typically brilliant mid-air split. About Francesca Harper’s Apex , let it be noted that it is “dedicated to those who stand up for human dignity and freedom,” that it’s about deportation, asylum denied and male rape, and that words like “Credible” and “Fear” and “Tortured” are projected onto the backdrop. More and more words are sneaking into the Ailey repertory. Does the company think that subjects like torture and poverty are too important to be left to mere dance?

Black Milk , by Ohad Naharin, head of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, was given its company premiere. Another piece that began life danced by women, it’s now a work for five men and a bucket, into which they dip their hands in order to smear their faces with white paint or clay before they challenge each other to see who’s the most macho of them all. Black Milk is a good opportunity to watch Ailey at what it does best: showing off Rushing, Brown and their male colleagues. Not that the women are less accomplished; they just have less to do. With Renee Robinson phasing out, the central female roles are being taken on with great conviction by Fisher-Harrell, Linda-Celeste Sims and Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines (whole lotta hyphens going on). And of course there’s the wonderful Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, all explosive strut and thrust. She’s still waiting for someone to make a star vehicle for her. Come on, Ailey: Focus!

Meanwhile, as Ailey was packing them in at the City Center (for five weeks), down in Soho, at the tiny Ohio Theater, Doug Varone brought us the most interesting and moving work of this endless fall season. It’s called The Bottomland , and it’s set in a backwoods Kentucky community. The first part, “Songs That Tell a Story,” is set to country music sung by the talented Patty Loveless; the second part, “As Told at Night, When the Air is a Different Color,” is to an original score by Gaétan Leboeuf.

In Part I, the dancers perform against a video background that shows them in and around the imposing landscape of Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves. The movement onstage echoes rather than mirrors what’s happening on screen; we’re observing this community both up close and far away. At times, the video distracts from the dancing, yet it also deepens it by emphasizing that we are watching “real people” we recognize in a “real place” we can identify. The costumes look appropriately real, too, particularly the cheap, washed-out dresses-the kind that farm women used to order from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. The movement seems to well up out of the characters’ emotions: A strong characteristic of Varone’s vocabulary is the way stillness is suddenly shattered by outbursts of flailing energy. There’s weight to the movement-arms sink heavily downwards, people collapse against each other or to the ground. This first part of The Bottomland is about the intense feelings of people in an isolated community: They hold each other in silence, they erupt into passion or anger, they console each other. By the end, when one of the women tears off her dress and disappears upstage to the sound of a slammed door, we have entered wholly into the claustrophobic emotional world these people inhabit.

Part II is also powerful, but it’s less original than Part I because it’s more conventionally plotty. There’s an older abused wife (danced by that veteran star of the José Limón company, Nina Watt), jealous of her husband’s attentions to a conflicted younger rival. There’s a young Asian couple who are ostracized and roughed up by the rest of the community. There’s a hellfire preacher, both inciting violence and healing it. But though the “stories” may be conventional, in their telling everything flows together and comes together, the continuity mysteriously enhanced by the way a dozen or so lifelike dollhouses are slid around the dark playing area by the dancers, constantly reshaping the space, creating new arenas in which to reveal their intensifying emotion. Varone’s language is to a large extent one of gesture and facial expression-there are even sobs-yet nothing seems hokey. As with all successful dance works, you know from the first moment that something original and strong is happening. The relief!

Note: Doug Varone is the choreographer for the Met’s new production of Les Troyens , opening next month. Ailey Wrestles With Its Curse; Varone Bursts Out in Triumph