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DANCE REVIEWS : Ailey Dancers in West Coast 'Gym' Premiere


Drums and police whistles invade the darkness and suddenly we see Karine Plantadit of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre moving with so much speed and sexual heat that it's easy to mistake her intensity for rage. Packed with sharp angles and short, assaultive phrases, her solo simultaneously delivers formal dance invention and a character sketch of a specific contemporary female.

This is Donald Byrd's hard-edged "Dance at the Gym" in its West Coast premiere on an otherwise familiar three-part Ailey program, Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall. Working with his longtime collaborator, composer Mio Morales, Byrd suggests adolescent mating patterns through modern-dance choreography laced with plenty of daunting balletic and gymnastic challenges for an eight-member ensemble.

Reformulating pop dancing for maximum surprise, Byrd creates fierce body encounters too fine-tuned to be considered brutal, but too obsessed with sex drive to be called stylized. Tenderness does arise--but only after more basic needs are dealt with. Those needs keep the post-Balanchine complexity of the step-combinations grounded in documentary reality and some of the Ailey company's finest soloists looking passionately energized.

In contrast, Louis Johnson's 1981 "Fontessa and Friends" makes the Ailey dancers look like twits as it parodies ballet and show-dance cliches through incessant sight gags, beefcake spectacle and various permutations of drag.

Whether politically correct or not, guys in chiffon skirts pretending to be ballerinas can be funny--but this desperately silly charade never approaches the cleverness of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and also never delivers anything that might even fleetingly be misconstrued as choreography.

It's all staging tricks and woozy camp, starting with Fontessa herself: a diva role with lots of built-in female impersonation trademarks. Renee Robinson copes as best she can while such Ailey paragons as Elizabeth Roxas and Desmond Richardson manage to transcend if not transform the material.

Roxas' remarkable stretch and Richardson's spectacular suppleness also crown the finale of Ailey's "The River," a 1970 suite for American Ballet Theatre that the choreographer revised for his own company 11 years later, adjusting some of its requirements but leaving others intact.

It doesn't work: With the women on half-toe instead of the full pointe used in the ABT version, the dancing looks very much betwixt and between, powerful in the torso action that Ailey enhanced for his dancers, but often compromised in classical placement and the execution of steps. The most satisfying moments: mercurial group sections in which Ailey perfectly matches the flow and mystery of the Duke Ellington score.

The Ailey company engagement continues at UCLA through Sunday.

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