Alvin Ailey dancers were dazzling in New Orleans performance

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The Times-Picayune

By Chris Waddington

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theaterlived up to its reputation as the world's best modern dance company on Friday, displaying the sassy and spiritual sides of its repertoire in the first of three sold-out weekend shows at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.

Deploying 30 brilliant dancers, the company gave fans of athletic prowess plenty of gee-whiz moments. How did she touch her nose to the stage while lifting one leg in a 180-degree vertical extension? How did he switch directions so seamlessly -- spinning right, spinning left -- in pirouettes that left no room for pause? And yet, what impressed most was not simply the strength and agility of the individual dancers, but the company's ability to work as a unit, delivering powerful narratives through movement, music and expressive lighting designs.

Ailey's own work -- the gospel-charged 1960 masterwork "Revelations" -- capped a program that included work by two other important African-American choreographers: George Faison and Ronald K. Brown. Together, they provided a delightful two-hour explanation of why the word "theater" appears in the company's name.

In "Revelations, " for example, Ailey deployed the ensemble in lines, phalanxes and circles, commanding the entire stage, and transforming the floor and backdrop into active elements in the dance. It brought to mind the push and pull of forms -- dark and light, ying and yang -- in the abstract paintings that were so much a part of the New York art scene when Ailey first assembled his company.

And, yes, he also delivered a powerful story of redemption, one that tapped the uplift of gospel music and framed a host of details from life: hands, fans and heads all aflutter with church-going ecstasy; dancers lifted like Christ on the cross, or spreading their arms like the Holy Spirit about to take wing.

Brown's "Dancing Spirit" often felt like a tribute to the artist who created "Revelations" -- and to Judith Jamison, the company's artistic director, who has tended Ailey's legacy for 20 years. The piece invoked the African-rooted spirituality of Cuba and Brazil by harnessing vernacular elements -- trancelike swaying and backs arched in ecstasy -- and fitting them into a distinctive, contemporary dance vocabulary. Brown's choreography is remarkably dense, requiring dancers to move limbs, torsos, hips, heads and shoulders in different directions and at different speeds.

The dance phrases came together with fluid grace, and often brought to mind a jazz drummer's ability to sustain multiple rhythmic patterns while keeping a groove. The musicality of the dancing was a perfect match for a soundtrack that deftly wove compositions by Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, Radiohead and War.

Set beside these powerful spiritual statements, Faison's "Suite Otis" seemed a trifle lightweight -- a feel-good program opener that made clear why this former Ailey dancer has had such success as a Broadway choreographer. Full of hip-shaking mamas and strutting discotheque kings, this well-crafted 1971 dance illustrated a suite of popular soul tunes by Otis Redding. Comic, romantic and exuberant by turns, it never went deeper than a night on the town.