Alvin Ailey company rocks in old and new works at State Theatre

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Donald Rosenberg

It’s always a pleasure to be reunited with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The company consistently opens windows into African-American aesthetics and experience with charismatic dancers who savor every style they face.

The Ailey company is especially welcome at PlayhouseSquare’s State Theatre this weekend for another reason: It is Cleveland’s first glance at the troupe since Robert Battle became artistic director this season.

What the audience saw Friday was both familiar and surprising. The company’s signature work, Ailey’s “Revelations,” ended the program, as always. But the evening also included a recent addition to the repertory and two pieces by Battle, which he created long before taking the Ailey helm.

The results were compelling, if partly exhausting. Opening the program with three relentless pieces reduced the impact they might have had in another context, though the distinctive qualities of each stood out as performed by the exceptional Ailey dancers.

Rennie Harris’ “Home,” new this season, reflects the choreographer’s hip-hop style in rapid-wire footwork and challenging interplay. It begins as a commentary on community, with the cast huddled together, and develops into a study of alienation and acceptance.

That may sound heavy, but Harris’ explosive movement language - set to equally propulsive house music by Dennis Ferrer and Raphael Xavier - never fails to seize the eye. Once the magnetic Matthew Rushing emerges from the crowd as an outcast and claps to garner attention, Harris sends the cast into hip-hop orbit.

The protagonist’s plight is sidelined by the intricate tasks the cast performs with athletic and virtuoso relish. Only when the community finally welcomes Rushing into the fold with a collective sigh does Harris’ mesmerizing brainstorm settle for anything resembling serenity.

The intensity doesn’t wane in Battle’s “Takademe” and “The Hunt.” The former is a witty and perilous solo performed to Sheila Chandra’s “Speaking in Tongues II,” a kaleidoscope of high-speed vocal percussion. Linda Celeste Sims danced the piece with polished precision, quite a contrast to the coiled vibrancy Kendall G. Britt Jr. offered on Ballet Memphis’ program here in March.

In “The Hunt,” Battle places six males in black and red skirts in a series of aggressive skirmishes. Set to booming percussion and vocal music by Les Tambours du Bronx, the work exudes primal electricity, with bonding rituals giving way to violent gestures. The Ailey dancers brought stupendous urgency and elasticity to the fierce material.

The vehemence that had pervaded the evening gave way to poetry and jubilance with the arrival of the program’s oldest works. Joyce Trisler’s “Journey” (1958) is a glimpse into spiritual enlightenment set to Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” Dressed in flowing white, Alicia Graf Mack conveyed the piece’s quizzical fulfillment with supple beauty.

Then came “Revelations” (19600 in a performance that vibrantly delineated Ailey’s loving ode to African-American experience. Spirituals, blues and gospel catapult the narratives of slavery, baptism and freedom.

Friday’s cast exulted in Ailey’s choreographic outpouring. Briana Reed was a marvel of control and extension in “Fix Me, Jesus,” and Antonio Douthit excelled in the resilient phrases of “I Wanna Be Ready.” It was no surprise when the entire ensemble rocked the house in “Rocka My Soul” - twice.