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Hellos and Thank Yous at Family Reunion

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The New York Times

By Alastair Macaulay

Judith Jamison is leaving the post of artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with a smile and laughter. On Sunday night the company ended its annual season at City Center with a tribute to her that lasted over three hours. Well paced, it seemed shorter; but when Ms. Jamison came to the stage at the end, one of her first utterances, delivered in teasing tones of amazement, was simply to thank the audience for staying, and applauding, that long.

No artistic director has greater ease with the public — she could even ask a colleague to clean her spectacles for her before she read some of her remarks — and, on essential matters, no artistic director demonstrates better manners. Thank yous can make for tedious oratory, but Ms. Jamison, taking time to express gratitude to many people, made her audience feel like family, united in a common enterprise, guided by the same ardent beliefs and sharing the same enthusiastic good humor.

She took full pleasure and pride in the occasion. (“I have come a long way from Philadelphia, Pa.”) “I love you too — you know that,” she told the audience, and later, “I thank you for your silences — and for your can’t-take-you-anywhere loudnesses.” But her main attention was to others, not only in recognizing achievements, but also in reminding them of the cause. “Just continue to shine!” she told the dancers, and, invoking Ailey (“one black man with a vision”), she quoted, “This little light — let it shine,” as if it were his and the company’s motto.

In a speech earlier in the evening the 98-year-old impresario Paul Szilard spoke of Ms. Jamison as one of the great dancers of the 20th century. For those of us who missed her dancing onstage, film clips testify to her charisma, power and artistry, and Mr. Szilard’s testimony, from one who saw and promoted so many of that century’s great dancers, was a potent tribute.

The evening’s other speech came at the start, from the choreographer Robert Battle, who will succeed Ms. Jamison when she retires in June. Though he spoke of his nervousness, this showed only in fleeting moments. Evidently he shares her humor: he teased the audience about the number of times he had been told she was “a hard act to follow.” Since his way of speaking is lighter and slyer than hers, it will be interesting to see how in due course he uses it in carrying the audience along — but he already engages it on friendly terms.

This was a happy night for Ailey history. Mr. Battle was one of several choreographers who danced in their own works: Ronald K. Brown in “Grace” (1999), Camille A. Brown in “The Groove to Nobody’s Business” (2007) and — greeted with special warmth by the throng — George Faison (a company member from 1967 to 1970) in “Suite Otis” (1971). Thirteen works or excerpts, including Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Festa Barocca,” were danced before the inevitable “Revelations,” and six other former company members performed in some of them: Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish, Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, Toni Pierce-Sands, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Asha Thomas and Alicia Graf Mack.

One day I hope to see the complete solo “Cry” onstage danced by a single woman, as it once was. This season, its three parts have been danced by three women; in some other seasons, only the third section has been danced. In the second section on Sunday, Ms. Fisher-Harrell, a company member from 1992 to 2005, had only to shift her pelvis in opposition to her waist to raise the visceral power of the evening by several degrees. The vehement clarity of her dancing here and in Mr. Brown’s “Grace” gave me great cause to regret that I had never seen her before.

Ms. Thomas-Schmitt, a member from 1986 to 1998, brought the same urgency to the concluding — and taxing — section of “Cry.” To see past members return to repertory in shape this excellent is thrilling, though it’s noteworthy — and amazing — that Renee Robinson, who danced the opening part of the solo, joined the company as long ago as 1981 and is still a member. In Mr. Battle’s slow and low-key duet “We” (2010), Ms. Robinson — opposite Mr. Battle — wore a completely backless dress that revealed just how beautiful her back still is.

Apart from “Cry,” few of these shorter dances amount to much as choreography, and yet they succeed better in this kind of gala-highlights context than many better works. Even those of us who feel we’ve seen David Parsons’s “Caught” solo (1982) too often could smile at the jumps that Clifton Brown achieved. His solo from Béjart’s “Firebird” (1970) looks like something from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo without the makeup, and yet — judiciously set between the urban realism of Ms. Brown’s “Groove” and the jazz romping of Ailey’s “Pas de Duke” (1976) — it became here a harmlessly enjoyable splash of fancy color.

The evening included chunks from two dances by Ms. Jamison herself, “Reminiscin’ ” (2005) and “Love Stories” (2004): they too kept the evening bright.

Any one section of “Revelations” could be excerpted in a gala-highlights bill, but its greatest effect is the way it moves from one different dance to another to create a spectrum of expressive styles. In consequence, it becomes about human transcendence, that overriding Ailey subject. The company this season has been showing Judy Kinberg’s short film “Celebrating ‘Revelations’ at 50” before performances. It’s salutary to see glimpses of how Ailey (especially), Ms. Jamison and others once danced this work, and to see scenes of Southern black culture from which Ailey drew inspiration.

The year 1960 was great for choreography, and, at the risk of sounding heretical, I won’t say I love “Revelations” as much as those other 1960 works, “La Fille Mal Gardée” by Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Walzer” and Merce Cunningham’s “Crises.” But “Revelations” — danced these days with a precision that seems geared to weather the waves of applause its every feat prompts — remains irresistible. In her speech Ms. Jamison predicted that it will still be danced in 50 years. This little light — let it shine.