Robert Moses piece looks great on Alvin Ailey dance company

04.23.15
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
SF Gate

But Wednesday night, in a much more substantial program, San Francisco choreographer Robert Moses debuted with the company with the finest commission we’ve seen in Battle’s four-year tenure.

Meaty is a suitable description for Moses’ “The Pleasure of the Lesson,” a piece that unites five couples in a steamy orange environment, traversing the stage to a score by Moses and local composer David Worm. It includes rumbles, a beating heart, insistent percussion and quotes from Shakespeare, and could be about anything. So could the choreography.

But that’s the beauty of the piece. Moses serves up elegant evidence, spurns easy solutions and then invites you to take away any meaning you wish. What the choreography does suggest is the complexity and volatility of relationships between the genders and the speed with which the dominant role can shift. That keeps happening all the way through the grueling final duet and even through the exit, dispatched heroically by Jacqueline Green and Antonio Douthit-Boyd.

At the start, Moses lines up his superb dancers, clad in orange and red, as if he were launching a tournament. Stylistically, he incorporates elements of ballet, modern and African dance, and that polyglot style keeps us alert. The duets are fraught with sudden lifts and supports, and they keep us off balance. The texture is often as thick as the stage smoke. Structurally, “The Pleasure of the Lesson” adds up to a succession of terrific moments. And for once, it’s thrilling to experience an Ailey work in which the applause-wringing “wow” factor is kept to a minimum.

“The Pleasure of the Lesson” is Moses’ first commission for a national company. It won’t be the last.

The program’s other novelty is the disarming four-minute solo “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich,” made in 1932 by the Sierra Leone-born choreographer Asadata Dafora and re-created by Charles Moore. Accompanied by a flute-percussion score and dressed in a feathery skirt, Jamar Roberts incarnated the bird of the title, muscles rippling and head jerking with ornithological glee. This is a bit of dance history nobody should miss.

Aside from Ailey’s imperishable and eternally wonderful “Revelations,” little in Tuesday’s program aspired to a more profound structural or emotional approach to movement. The challenges were mostly physical, and the audience seemed to adore every feat.

A dance like Matthew Rushing’s new “Odetta” was made for adoration. The company’s much-prized former principal assembled 10 recordings by the esteemed singer Odetta (Holmes, who used just her first name), all interpreted by a moderate-size ensemble led by the feisty Hope Boykin, an energy source whenever she appears.

Rushing honors Odetta both as stirring musician and political activist with minimal scenic design. It all makes for agreeable viewing, but Rushing has pegged the choreography to illustrate the music, rather than fusing with his sound source, and at 40 minutes, “Odetta” seems perilously extended; an “Odetta Suite” might have made more sense.

Then Kirven Douthit-Boyd leaped through David Parsons’ strobe-light solo, “Caught,” which garnered the predictable ovation.

Read the rest of the review here