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High Gloss, Low Spark

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ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER

at the Civic Opera House

May 7-10, 1987

TWYLA THARP DANCE

at the Auditorium Theatre

May 9, 1987

Although an Alvin Ailey engagement rarely offers a creative surprise, his strong sense of drama and his dedication to celebrating the black experience and to exploring ancient ritual generally combine to make an Ailey performance an exciting event. Ailey's finely honed company gives each work a technical patina that leads one often to overlook and forgive some of his choreographic excesses and his stylistically repetitive designs.

For this engagement at the Opera House, Ailey offered four Chicago premieres -- three by him, and one by Ulysses Dove, Bad Blood, set to a taped score of songs by Laurie Anderson. Dove, a former Ailey dancer who has been making a name for himself as a young choreographer, is a strong, inventive talent. Bad Blood, a work for seven dancers that takes a rather sardonic look at sexual passion, built tension and excitement from its first moments.

The piece opened with Carl Bailey, clad in white, seated under Carol Vollet Garner's mysterious rope backdrop. After a longish still pause, he danced a brilliant, demanding solo of leaps, multiple spins, and almost demented speed. He was joined by Renee Robinson in a pas de deux that asked, in effect, If this is love, then what is anger and rejection? The two were then joined by three more men and two women for a tension-building episode of wild pyrotechnics. The piece ends with the dancers rearranging their emotional priorities through a series of partner changes that lends a certain piquancy but weakens the sense of climax, especially given the Laurie Anderson lines: "I am walking. I am falling." The lyric may have some mystic importance, but it sounds sort of silly in this powerful work.

Ailey's own premieres were less successful. Caverna Magica, commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet, is another of Ailey's mythic ritual works. This one is more arresting than some others of its ilk, mainly because of Carol Vollet Garner's stunning set -- an eerie red cavern, mysteriously distanced by a series of scrims -- and April Berry's alluring performance as the high priestess. Berry parades around proudly in a sparkling silver gown and a magically flowing pied-piper robe, but if Ailey envisioned Caverna Magica as a sort of Sacre du printemps, complete with a young virgin in white and a handsome mate, the work failed. It went on endlessly, and degenerated with a corps that reminded me of hootchie-cootchie dancers, all slinging hips and clinging costumes.

Witness, a solo glowingly performed by Marilyn Banks, might well be described as daughter of Cry, the notable solo that Ailey originally created for Judith Jamison. Performed to a traditional song sung by Jessye Norman -- "My soul is a witness for my Lord" -- this is prime Ailey, a piece that draws on his modern dance background with the late Lester Horton. The open palms, wonderful leg extensions, and powerful floor work, from which Banks arose with renewed conviction in her strong yet pliable back, were moving evocations of Ailey as an original talent -- of his understanding of the black woman's struggle, and his genius at expressing such deep emotions through movement. There was nothing kitsch or pop here; the background of votive candles fitted the impulse of the work, which was inspirational and devotional.

Survivors, the fourth premiere, is dedicated to Nelson and Winnie Mandela, the heroic South African resistance couple. Choreographed jointly by Ailey and Mary Barnett, the company's associate artistic director, it does pay tribute to the Mandelas through vibrant, stirring, and suffering dance that movingly portrays their need for each other. Dudley Williams, an Ailey company veteran, and Sharrell Mesh were the tragic duo, she as much imprisoned as he by the bars crashed down from the flies to enclose him onstage. Five dancers in stylized African robes were supporters, attempting to comfort Winnie in her travail. Yet despite the strong emotional pull of the situation, and the powerful performances of the two principals, the work was somehow uneven in its impact. Political prisoners in our world need to be realized in large, universal terms; in this dance it was their personal desperate longing for each other that predominated.

Divining, Judith Jamison's 1984 work for the company, can be a wild, driving rite, but it was not as soul-stirring as I remember it. It was the engagement's curtain-raiser, and it sometimes takes a little time for a company to feel entirely comfortable on a new stage. Elizabeth Roxas's performance was strong, but the role of high priestess demands a dancer of more imposing physical proportions.

As for Ailey's choreographic tribute to Charlie Parker -- For Bird With Love -- repeated performances have not been able to endear to me this overlong, chronological survey of the legendary jazzman's life. His various women, his alcohol and drug addictions, even his seizures and imprisonment in a straitjacket (which looks ridiculous onstage, not like the sad end of a great talent), make for boredom rather than artistic homage. Of course there is the wonderful jazz and bebop music, and a brilliant church scene that wittily and affectionately portrays religious frenzy, but they're not enough to rescue the work.

Last summer at Ravinia Twyla Tharp introduced two new pieces, both called Untitled, and a largely new roster of dancers. Those two pieces now have titles, and Tharp's company recently offered them to the public at a single performance in the Auditorium Theatre.

Ballare, performed to Mozart's Double Piano Sonata no. 448, is a classic white ballet, danced on toe by four women, accompanied by three men. It's a pretty piece, but bland. Despite a few typically unconventional balletic tricks, it looks very much like the sort of work a young classic student might make, relying for the most part on the steps of the classical ecole.

Of course Tharp is one of our most gifted choreographers, and she can more than hold her own in ballet technique, as anyone who has seen her Bach Partita for American Ballet Theatre can testify. But in Ballare she seems tentative in her approach to the classic style. The soft white draperies on the women give their movements a romantic grace and elegance, but the dance as a whole was a disappointment.

In the Upper Room was much more typically Tharp, with its loose bodies, slouch and slither, frantic speed, and abrupt shifts in pacing and direction. Yet here too Tharp displays her renewed affection for the classic toe work she first employed in her Joffrey pieces of long ago, Deuce Coupe and As Time Goes By. Several young women in red toe shoes and short skirts come and go, adding the fillip of toe technique to the wildly gyrating dancers in Norma Kamali's black-and-white-striped pajamas. These unfortunately reminded me of Auschwitz wear, despite touches of red. After costume changes and some more leaping, there's an amusing sextet for the three toe-slippered women and their partners. Danced in precise unison, it almost looks like a Tharpian takeoff on the Cygnets dance in Swan Lake.

The dance, which runs about 40 minutes to an electronic score by Philip Glass, is consistently inventive. Even more inventive is Jennifer Tipton's magical lighting, which creates a space that falls off into shade at the back of the stage, into which the dancers disappear as their solos, duets, or trios end. Among the dancers, William Whitener and Shelley Washington, two quintessentially Tharpian stylists, were especially noteworthy as they glitzed, slid, and leaped across the stage. And yet the work is a cold, unemotional thing. It shows the dancers off wonderfully, and again exhibits Tharp's clever way with bodies, but it never touches the heart. Even its fun and games are impersonal. And frankly, I miss the personal touch.

I also felt the program of two ballets was a bit on the short side to warrant the top ticket price of $22.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack Mitchell.

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