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DANCE REVIEW : Refreshing Perspectives From Alvin Ailey Troupe


"I been 'buked and I been scorned. . . ."

The spiritual that opens "Revelations" pierces deep in this particular week of Los Angeles' history, reminding us of one legacy of pain set within another: " There is trouble all over this land. . . . "

Onstage at Royce Hall, the nine dancers bend low, as if under a shared burden, but end by reaching up individually into rays of golden light.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is back, and Lord how we need it now. The "Revelations" offered by the company on Wednesday (start of a seven-performance UCLA engagement) won't eclipse the most memorable performances of this work that UCLA audiences have seen, but it comes at a time when the city is starved for an authentic perspective on suffering--something Ailey provides with imperishable nobility.

Watch Elizabeth Roxas and Andre Tyson in the "Fix Me, Jesus" duet, and see true transcendence: her adagio balances and his mastery of lifts honed until technique grows transparent. All that's left are the purest statements possible of the human need to stretch upward toward something greater and to float free of earthly bonds.

Watch Michael Joy in the "I Want to Be Ready" solo and see an unusually turbulent interpretation, the restless twistings of a soul not yet free of rage but reaching toward the promise of peace.

Dancing of this caliber more than compensates for a strangely prosaic performance of the "Take Me to the Water" section--normally a succession of miracles. However, this may not be the time in the company's history--or ours--for miracles. Maybe the communal sweetness and acceptance of "Rocka My Soul" are as high as the company can take us in this period of transition.

Certainly the afterglow of that final sequence is more than the two novelties on the program can provide. Like the Balanchine repertory at New York City Ballet, the Ailey legacy to his company simply outclasses artistic director Judith Jamison's post-Ailey acquisitions both in craft and inspiration. Billy Wilson's "The Winter in Lisbon" offers plenty of the former and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's "Shelter" some fleeting evidence of the latter, but both times, you're never really seeing choreography as much as powerhouse company dancing.

"Lisbon" borrows its title and most of its distinction from the alternately bluesy, skittering, galvanic Dizzy Gillespie jazz score that accompanies it. Wilson inventively uses character gesture to personalize his slick, unison show-dance routines, but much of the choreography seems so familiar, it's hard to believe that this is the work's West Coast premiere.

Lighting designer Chenault Spence bathes the stage in colored smoke effects, turning the climactic nightclub-style adagio for the slinky Linda Denise-Evans and the powerful Leonard Meek into a fantasy or memory of lost love--the work's one moment of genuine feeling. Along the way, we also encounter new proof that Desmond Richardson is one of America's great young dancers and that Roxas can dance vixens nearly as impressively as saints.

Originally choreographed for Urban Bush Women, "Shelter" initially explores and then exploits the lives of street people, using a text by Hattie Gosset and music by Junior "Gabu" Wedderburn to supply both a social context and a rhythmic pulse for the actions of six women.

Zollar's theater sense and, especially, her use of whole-body mime generate intense and often imaginative statements of desperation, loneliness and raw pain. Moreover, her street people use street-theater techniques to bring the message home: "It can happen to you," we hear over the loudspeaker while the dancers point warning fingers at every one of us.

Unfortunately, Zollar's use of formal dancing is at best awkward and unmotivated, at worse disastrous, as when she turns "Shelter" into a hard-sell divertissement complete with bravura solos. Does she want us to feel compassion for--and connection with--the homeless because of their plight or because they can execute dynamite turning-jumps?

"Shelter" ends with spoken laments for endangered species, starting with the rain forest and eventually including all human beings. However this gutsy but confused social portrait suggests that another endangered species ought to be mentioned: choreographers with the courage of their convictions.

The Ailey company continues at UCLA through Sunday evening, with three different programs scheduled. It then moves to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday and Wednesday.

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