Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing at Smith Center

03.16.12
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Las Vegas Review Journal

By Carol Cling

Spring's imminent arrival means it's time for new beginnings.

For Las Vegas' new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, that certainly is the case.

But also for one of The Smith Center's first touring attractions: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which will perform at Reynolds Hall Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

Founded in 1958, the celebrated modern dance troupe has appeared before an estimated 23 million audience members in 71 countries.

But the company's current 27-city North American tour is the first under the guidance of Robert Battle, who became the Ailey's third artistic director -- following founder Ailey and successor Judith Jamison -- last July.

Battle and his dancers are "looking forward to being part of the christening" of the new Smith Center, he says in a telephone interview from a Southern California tour stop.

"It's a great fit for a new time," Battle adds, with both the Ailey company and The Smith Center "on the precipice of new discoveries."

Battle's discoveries began when he was a kid, in his hometown of Miami, after he saw Ailey's 1960 landmark "Revelations" -- a suite danced to traditional African-American spirituals -- that conveys the notion of "hope beyond circumstance."

It's no accident that "Revelations" concludes every performance on the Ailey company's current tour, including those in Las Vegas.

In Battle's view, "you know more about history" -- specifically African-American history -- after seeing "Revelations" than "when you open a textbook," he says. "And that understanding is universal."

Seeing "Revelations" proved a definite revelation for Battle, who cites its place in "the history of modern dance," thanks in part to its "social and political" themes.

"All of that is a wonderful inspiration," he notes. "I find the idea that this company has a history and a tradition to be comforting. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you can take the wheel -- and roll it up the hill."

A 1981 classic by another modern dance master joins the Ailey repertoire this season: Paul Taylor's "Arden Court," which features solos, duets and a men's sextet, danced to William Boyce's baroque score.

"Arden Court" is scheduled to lead off Wednesday's Smith Center performance, followed by choreographer Ulysses Dove's battle-of-the-sexes "Episodes" and "Revelations."

Opening Tuesday night's performance: hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris' "Home," set to a gospel house music score and inspired by stories submitted to a "Fight HIV Your Way" contest.

The Ailey troupe debuted "Home" in New York last Dec. 1 -- World AIDS Day, which also happened to be the 22nd anniversary of company founder Alvin Ailey's death from AIDS.

Tuesday night's Las Vegas performance includes three of Battle's own works: "Takademe" (1999), an abstract take on Indian Kathak dance; "In/Side" (2008), a visceral solo performed to "Wild Is the Wind" by Nina Simone; and '"The Hunt" (2001), which features six male dancers exploring humanity's predatory side to a percussive score.

The diversity of the featured dances, and the music accompanying them which ranges from baroque to hip-hop, emphasizes the notion that "what you're hearing is as important as what you're seeing," Battle explains.

It also reflects another Ailey tradition: accessibility.

"True to modern dance, that's been one of the cornerstones, through Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison," he notes, citing a goal of enabling audiences to "not only witness something by sight but also by feel."

After all, "modern dance is so much about gesture, and gesture is so personal," Battle points out. "There's a different feeling, from cast to cast, and from dancer to dancer."

Southern Nevada students will have the chance to experience those feelings Wednesday morning at a special performance, which is expected to feature "Takademe," an excerpt from Ailey's 1970 "Streams" and, of course, "Revelations."

The company performs for students "in a lot of the places we go," Battle says, noting that his predecessors stressed "the idea of arts and education" as a way to introduce young people to modern dance, and to demonstrate that "they never wanted the company to be in any way elitist."

After more than 50 years, performing before more than 20 million people as a Congressionally recognized "Ambassador to the World," the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater proved that long ago, he maintains.

But they're not finished yet.

Once audiences "come to the theater," Battle says, "we can change hearts and minds with a different idea of a dance concert."