Black Genius

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

At the Arlington Theatre, Tuesday, March 7.

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Alvin Ailey’s choreography — passionate, reverent, and simple — pays homage to the African-American culture of his Texas childhood; it is steeped in joyous Christian faith and the human instinct for celebration, even in times of suffering. It’s remarkable that a work like Ailey’s “Revelations,” choreographed in 1960, still has life in it, yet it does. So much life, in fact, that last Tuesday’s program came out lopsided: Nothing preceding the signature piece could do it justice.

These are transcendent dancers. The Olympians of the dance world, their bodies are finely tuned instruments of incomparable finesse and articulation. Match that with the exuberance they channel, and the result is sublime — as long as the choreography delivers the goods. The rippling, shimmying, African dance- and hip-hop-infused “Love Stories” captured that exuberance, but failed to rein it in. The work of three choreographers vied for stage time in this raucous street party, which captured the Ailey spirit, but lacked a unifying structure.

“Acceptance in Surrender” struck closer to the mark. Trembling and broken, Dwana Adiaha Smallwood was as weightless as an empty husk as she writhed alone in the dust motes of Al Crawford’s luscious light design. When three men like fallen angels glided from the blackness upstage, their muscularity heightened her delicacy, then absorbed it. Tortured angularity and imbalance gave way to lyrical unison patterns and partnering that ebbed and flowed as inevitably as tides.

The austerity of “Surrender, Solo” — a trio by Hans van Manen, resident choreographer for Nederlands Dans Theater — was as ill-fitting on the Ailey dancers as the oversized purple T-shirts hiding their bodies. Ailey dancers may represent the pinnacle of achievement, but their strength is not in the linear, clever vein of NDT — it’s something warmer and more physical. The dancers captured the comic timing and racing footwork of “Solo,” but their talent was muffled by choreography this cute and efficiently controlled.

“Revelations” roused the audience to spontaneous applause. The curtain came up on the opening image of outstretched hands and upturned faces. Bathed in sepia tones and washed in the baptismal font of Southern gospel, Ailey’s signature work was as stunning and humbling as ever. Bodies became conduits for ecstatic awakening, a call to the primal joy of life even through suffering and sorrow. It’s 46 years on, and these dancers are dancing it like they were just born again. “Revelations” remains the real thing; finding new work that can stand alongside it and live up to the legacy is the real challenge.

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