NEW YORK — The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater could have titled its 35th anniversary gala on Wednesday night a "hymn to him."
To start with, the popular modern dance company offered a most impressive array of both singing and speaking voices to help celebrate Ailey and the institution he founded. Jessye Norman, Dionne Warwick, Al Jarreau, Brother John Sellers, Maya Angelou, Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington were all onstage. The audience, by the way, squealed with almost as much delight over Angelou as it did over Washington.
Even more to the point was the world premiere of "Hymn," a collaboration between artistic director Judith Jamison and actress/writer Anna Deavere Smith. This full-company work, in which both of them appear, turned out to be a very grandly scaled piece d'occasion at City Center.
Jamison's commissioning of Smith, who won recent acclaim on both coasts for the theatrical presentations of her penetrating interviews with disparate folk--"Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," about the Los Angeles riots, and "Fires in the Mirror," about New York's Crown Heights riot--was typically timely and savvy. Smith's task was to get personal reminiscences from both newer and older generation dancers about Ailey, or "Alvin," as they called him. Jamison's was to build a dance around these results.
So far the combined result is so-so. So far for two reasons: One is that the piece was only recently made ready for opening night. Originally, it was scheduled a week into the run. Another is that more textual material remains, to be used later on, perhaps for an evening-long work.
For now, the spectacle is overwhelmed by spoken anecdote and sentiment and under-fortified by dancing. Smith, equipped with head-set microphone, shadows and speaks for individual dancers as she wanders through the 13-part work that also includes a prologue and epilogue using the late Ailey's own voice on tape.
Sometimes Smith's forthright mimicry of the dancers' voices and speech patterns had an odd ring, often abetted by a piercing sound system. A few too many of these voices sounded like the Orthodox Jewish women from the Brooklyn neighborhood captured in Smith's "Fires in the Mirror." Some, however, rang happily forth, notably that of Karine Plantadit, telling in high-pitched Afro-French tones about her salt-of-the-earth grandmother.
Few of Jamison's group or solo dances compete successfully with Smith's text. The "fires in the mirror" you'd expect to see in the studios occupied by these eager and exciting dancers fail to blaze. At its most effective, this choreography has the impact of a workout session by some well-worked bodies.
Robert Ruggieri's high-tech score provides little help. It sounds like a steam-heat system with aspirations to being a calliope. Toyce Anderson's costumes consist of neat slacks in hot colors or very abbreviated dancewear in basic black.
Ailey's familiar, and classic, "Revelations" closed the evening with very live music. As guest soloists, Sellers, Warwick and Jarreau slightly upstaged the dancing with their singing of the score's spirituals. Norman did too, more than slightly, and she stood farthest upstage and had no mike at all.