Crowd-Pleasing Alvin Ailey, High-Minded Merce Cunningham

Santa’s on his way, and that means the Alvin Ailey crew have checked in at the City Center for their

Santa’s on his way, and that means the Alvin Ailey crew have checked in at the City Center for their annual five-week rave-up. And that means 20-odd performances of the company’s bread-and-butter piece, Revelations, which the audience starts applauding even before anything’s happened. Luckily, things then do happen, and when they go right, Revelations, however many times you’ve seen it, remains-sorry!-a revelation, if only of theater smarts. It certainly was one on the night I caught it-none of last year’s sense of burnout. There were strong individual performances-Wendy White Sasser in “Fix Me, Jesus,” Asha Thomas in “Wade in the Water“; but then Thomas has been strong in everything this season, her solid body always at the service of her flashing energy. She’s both earthy and electric, and she’s clearly hungry to dance.

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The early sections of Revelations remind you yet again that Ailey studied with a number of the modern masters, including Martha Graham. The influence isn’t just in the way he shapes the bodies of his dancers, and the way they move; it’s in the spirit with which he addresses his story. You see it again in one of his more successful earlier works, Hidden Rites from 1973, revived this season. Graham is lurking, especially in the first section, “Incantation,” a duet for the company’s glamour couple, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell and Clifton Brown. Brown calls to mind those big, handsome guys Graham favored, from Erick Hawkins to Paul Taylor to Bertram Ross. Fisher-Harrell has the Graham intensity as well as striking beauty. I don’t know whether today’s Graham company leases its ballets, but if Ailey could borrow Cave of the Heart from them, what a Medea Fisher-Harrell would make! And what a welcome addition a Graham masterpiece would be to the endlessly meretricious Ailey repertory.

Speaking of meretricious, let’s tip our hat to the latest exploitative exercise by David Parsons: Shining Star, to the hits of Earth, Wind and Fire. The music was live (it was so overmiked, the ear glazed over), but that doesn’t mean anything really live took place. (The 70’s didn’t seem live even when we were trapped in them.) Parsons gives us a disco look and a disco beat-hips swiveling and grinding away, everybody working overtime at being sexy. The dancers are provided with moves, not steps, and the resulting dances are relentlessly vacuous-strings of clichés trotted out, in this case to create a neo-Vegas jumble for the middle-aged audience to whoop along with. I’m glad someone was having fun.

There was more fun to be had-but not much more-from Donald Byrd’s Burlesque, new to the company. Eight dancers impersonate burlesque-house characters-the strippers, the slapstick comics-and they try hard. Too hard. It’s pastiche, it’s repetitive, and it’s much too long, but Byrd is a respectable choreographer and he knows what he’s doing. If only the girls didn’t keep slipping and tripping to the floor-ha ha!-and if only they didn’t have to get into the predictable catfight. Most important, if only Byrd hadn’t made the ruinous mistake of setting this harmless, predictable romp to some of Louis Armstrong’s greatest music. The dancing is so insignificantly busy, busy, busy, and the trumpet is so magnificent and pure, it’s as if the performers are accompanying the music rather than the other way round.

Another early Ailey piece was revived- Night Creature, an uneasy blend of Ailey’s Broadway mode with ballet: jetés, lifts, arabesques, everything but pointe shoes. But where is Ailey’s own language? Did he actually have a language? He certainly knew how to move dancers around the stage effectively, but he didn’t use Ellington’s music to tell us anything. For the audience, it was another automatic whoopathon. But to give them credit, they were also responsive to Elisa Monte’s mysterious, passionate duet Treading; the control and intensity Fisher-Harrell and Brown bring to it make a powerful impression. This piece, now 25 years old, remains one of the few truly estimable things in the Ailey repertory.

The big premiere was Love Stories, a mixed bag and a mixed blessing. The choreography is “by Judith Jamison with Robert Battle and Rennie Harris”; the music is Stevie Wonder; the idea is “a journey through the past, present and future.” Jamison, as weak a choreographer as she is a strong personality, leads off with a solo performed by the indispensable Clifton Brown which suggests the beginnings of the Ailey company in a bare studio. (The Ailey zeitgeist is almost pathologically self-reflecting.) After a lot of Jamison’s generic doodling, things go into high gear with Rennie Harris’ modified hip-hop routines-and as usual, they’re thrilling. This is the dance of the moment, ingeniously theatricalized, whereas the other social dances sampled-the Lindy, the Philly bop et al.-come across as nostalgic pastiche; they look as if they’ve been ironed out. When the lithe, feral Dwana Adiaha Smallwood takes over with her incandescent, galvanic energy and swagger, you’re swept away. At last, someone is presenting her front and center! (I still cherish my dream that one day we’ll get to see her as Josephine Baker, bananas and all.) And then there’s Abdur-Rahim Jackson, who must have appeared to Harris as the answer to a prayer: He’s the real thing, while most of the other hip-hoppers are just gamely going along. With Love Stories’ final section-the Robert Battle mystical section-we’re back in generic-land, only this time it’s generic portentousness. But at least we’ve had a stretch of real dance excitement along the way.

From the City Center to the Joyce is a matter of 30-odd blocks, but from Alvin Ailey to Merce Cunningham is a leap across galaxies. Ailey’s Broadway-Africanisms give way to Cunningham’s perpetual avant-gardisms. The Master, now in his mid-80’s and looking sadly but bravely frail as he’s helped onto the stage for a curtain call, is still calling the shots that have made him revered-and that have sunk the efforts of imitative admirers who lack his talent.

This season brought us four “Events,” each performed twice. And what is a Cunningham event? A sampling from works he created as long ago as the early 60’s and as recently as the day before yesterday. For approximately 75 minutes, the mini-events that make up each maxi-event flow-sometimes seamlessly, sometimes not-into the next. There’s different music (or sound) for each performance, to which, apparently, the performers are not introduced until the day in question. There are different costumes nightly-those I saw were uniformly unattractive. At Event One, the dancers were sheathed in tight body stockings from throat to ankle, all decorated in the kind of horizontal stripes that make you look even thicker than you already are. At Event Two, they were either magenta slashed and splashed with acid green or acid green splashed and slashed with magenta, with a little relief from white up toward the face. Their garishness could almost have been maliciously designed to distract you from the dancers themselves.

As for the sound, it was generally unbearable-electronic grunts, shrieks, peeps, farts, with, at Event One, a live trombone thrown in to horrible effect; at Event Two, there was a less intrusive piano. (You’ll have guessed that I missed Events Three and Four.) Luckily, one can honorably tune the “music” out, since it proceeds separately from the dance and seems to have no bearing on it. A generous friend offered me her earplugs, but I nobly declined.

Once you get past the brutalities of sound and décor, there’s the dancing itself. Cunningham’s choreography-far from being random, or left to chance, or spontaneous, as many people think it is-is highly organized and brilliantly specific. Almost every moment shines with felicity, at least as his 14 devoted dancers perform it. The language is chaste and delicate, the encounters between dancers brief, almost glancing. There are a few sequences where something recognizably narrative appears to be taking place-a stylized game of jacks; a tender reaching out of a hand to a face. But then we’re back to the purity of just plain movement in the just plain moment. So that if you can suspend the very human desire for progress to something, with no arc provided either by the drama of story or the drama of music, you can come away fulfilled. And even Cunningham compromises by delivering some kind of finale for each Event. But by the time they turn up, you’re so conditioned by the earlier apparent absence of structure that they seem artificial and pasted on.

As the samplings stream past, you can’t help trying to attribute meaning to their sequencing-there must be a reason why this trio is followed by this quartet, why these five dancers rush onto the stage at exactly this moment. After all, life itself presents an inevitable sequence-from birth to death: How can we not be affected by it? Cunningham denies us everything Ailey thrusts down our throats-specious excitations, spurious entertainment. It’s a blessed relief. And yet how long can one live on such rarefied high-mindedness? Cunningham’s accomplishment over the 50 years of his company’s existence has served as a necessary corrective to much of what was taking place in Western dance, and he deserves the respect, even the veneration in which he’s held. But I have to admit that after two servings of Events, I felt the way I remember feeling in Kyoto after several evenings of exquisitely authentic Japanese high cuisine: that I had to have, right away, an ice-cream cone-with sprinkles, and a Coke on the side.

Crowd-Pleasing Alvin Ailey, High-Minded Merce Cunningham