Review: Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is spiritually awakened anew

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Los Angeles Times

By Jean Lenihan

Long known for the joyous 'Revelations,' the company visits Los Angeles with a Jewish piece added to its repertoire: Ohad Naharin's 'Minus 16.'

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has long bedecked its ensemble in suits (the jazz crowd in "For Bird — With Love") and took a recent turn with androgynous menswear (Camille A. Brown's "The Evolution of a Secured Feminine").

Yet in previous incarnations, these fitted jackets and rakish hats have been of a jazzy, romantic stripe, spurring angled moves and scurrying feet. One imagines a crafty urban vernacular born from fast pedestrians, tight corridors and dizzying heights.

Those speedy, showy creatures of past Ailey seasons bore no resemblance to the crumpled, besuited unisex ensemble that came to life Wednesday night at the Music Center premiere of "Minus 16" (1999) by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. The work, brought into the company repertory last year by Robert Battle during his first season as artistic director, had its California debut in Costa Mesa last spring.

Patched together from several works Naharin created for Tel Aviv's Batsheva Dance Company, "Minus 16," with its society of peckish, spiritually exhausted and devotional beings, introduced a welcome, fresh vision of the spiritual to a company that's staked its claim on that challenging territory.

"Minus 16" also succeeded in forcing the muscular troupe's hand with structured improvisation and audience interaction — areas you can't just power through.

Part of the "Ailey Spirit" bill — one of three programs during the company's five-night run at the Music Center — "Minus 16" appeared between a revival of Ronald K. Brown's nebulous, searching "Grace" (1999) and Ailey's classic "Revelations" (1960).

Although both Brown's and Naharin's works employed a collage of scenes set to a half-dozen infectious, evocative songs, only Naharin's worked like "Revelations" to fan clear narrative visions from the heat and rhythm of its music. Indeed, "Minus 16" stole most of the hallelujahs and amens the audience usually reserves for Ailey's crowd-pleasing closer.

After a 10-minute improvisation by Samuel Lee Roberts, clowning that began at intermission, "Minus 16" caught fire when the curtain rose on a pumped-up house mix of the traditional Passover song "Echad Mi Yodea" and the dark suited dancers appeared seated on a semi-circle of folding chairs.

As the Hebrew lyrics extolled God's presence, the dancers repeatedly collapsed forward, flung themselves back, wrestled with the air beside them and called out praise, "Shebashamaim uva'aretz!" Progressively, they flung their jackets toward center stage, leaving a dark, clotted mass that played against the flashes of white dress shirt and tender foot soles that emerged as new postures were struck.

The cascading wave of backbends that surged through the circle was timed so musically, with such satisfying punctuation, that the very moment it ended I thought, toddler-style, "Again!"

Though "Minus 16" is now widely staged — both Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Netherlands Dance Theatre II have brought the work here — Naharin tweaks the dance each time it joins a company's repertory, and Ailey's version is undoubtedly the most personal. It's dedicated to Naharin's late wife, Mari Kajiwara (1951-2001), a memorable Ailey dancer from 1970-1984.

For Kajiwara he included the duet set to Vivaldi's "Stabat Minor," which featured the luminous Kirven James Boyd and Ghrai DeVore on opening night. Repetitions of a tender phrase — Boyd walked toward Devore with his clasped hands extended toward her, shaking his wrists — along with unforgettable collaborations (he held her heel as she bent backward on one leg), were echoed during the work's climactic audience-participation scene.

The sublime Antonio Douthit held us, his audience, in the same spellbound clasp with which he held his surprised partner, audience member Lynne Juarez, who said afterward that she'd whispered to him, "You know I'm 72!"