It’s been less than two years since Robert Battle was named artistic director of the nation’s biggest contemporary dance company. In their first Santa Barbara appearance since then, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater showed signs of his influence.
It was there in the Saturday night program, which opened with one of Battle’s newest acquisitions: Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court” from 1981 — a classic of the modern dance canon, and a work of crisp lines and effusive joy. This work calls for such sweet innocence between partners that there’s a danger of tipping over into pantomime; the company kept things this side of ludicrous. On the same program, Rennie Harris’s hip-hop anthem “Home” (2011) located us squarely in the 21st century, with dancers dressed in slashed jackets, cargo pants, and high-top sneakers. The suggestion here: that hip-hop is culture, community, even salvation.
Also on Saturday night’s program were Battle’s own “Takademe:” a crowd-pleasing solo set to unaccompanied female voice and performed with gusto by Kirven James Boyd, and “Grace,” set on the company in 1999 by Ron K. Brown.
At the same time that he works to expand and diversify the repertory, Battle’s not straying far from Ailey’s roots. Sunday afternoon’s program closed with the company’s signature work, “Revelations,” a series of dances set to traditional gospel songs, which felt as fresh as ever.
Part of Battle’s commitment is to bring emerging artists into the Ailey sphere. To that end, this program included “Another Night” by acclaimed young choreographer Kyle Abraham. Set to the music of Dizzy Gillespie, it’s a wide-ranging dance party where dancers pause to chat on occasion, and a bag of Cheetos makes an appearance.
Increasingly eclectic it may be, but Battle’s repertory delivers what Ailey always has: a slice of the very best of American dance and culture.