In "Revelations"--Alvin Ailey's quasi-autobiography, just published by Birch Lane--the impresario-choreographer mulls the possibility of someone replacing him.
"After 30 years as head of the company," we read, "I've given a lot of thought to a successor. . . . My choice would be Gary DeLoatch, who I think could lead the company in new and exciting directions. I believe the board, though, would prefer somebody like Judy Jamison because of fund-raising possibilities that are inherent in her. Time will tell."
Time has told in its usual strange and mysterious ways. Ailey died in 1989. DeLoatch, who never inherited the mantle, died in 1993. And Judith Jamison is running the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
If one can judge from the wildly applauded performance Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre, she's running it very well--with equal parts imagination, flair, energy and reverence.
Ailey never worked in a temple of High Art. That really wasn't his style. His most successful efforts always colored high-brow aspirations with pop pizazz. His most successful efforts always soared, even when vulgarity beckoned, because of the unflagging commitment and virtuosity of dancers who managed to temper athletic prowess with technical refinement. That hasn't changed.
The big news on this occasion involved the West Coast premiere of "Hymn," an evocative tribute to Ailey bearing characteristic choreography by Jamison, a documentary text by Anna Deavere Smith (grotesquely distorted by amplification) and a funky-percussive tape score by Robert Ruggieri.
The premise is simple: Jamison focuses on various members of the company, in varying permutations and combinations, as they attempt self-portraiture amid dynamic psychodance. Meanwhile, Smith--most celebrated for her theatrical re-creations of eyewitness accounts of racial strife in Crown Heights and Los Angeles--recites the dancers' memories of Ailey, as culled and edited from lengthy interviews.
Some of the speeches are sad, some funny, some trite. Profundity is in short supply. Sentimentality isn't.
On festive occasions such as this, Smith appears in the flesh. A microphone wired to her mouth, she wanders amid the protagonists, interacts knowingly with them, musters an occasional suggestion of dance movement and provides casual counterpoint for the formal choreography. The result is fascinating, even when the contrasting impulses threaten to become distractions.
Smith projects unreasonable facsimiles of the tones and inflections of her disparate subjects. Democratically, she applies her own verbal mannerisms to each and all.
She impersonates the sadly heroic voice and, presumably, the heroic persona of veteran danseur Dudley Williams lamenting the things he never said to Ailey. She assumes the wry pathos of Karine Plantadit-Bageot reminiscing about her African roots. She appropriates the Japanese accent and volcanic agitation of Masazumi Chaya, now serving the company as associate artistic director, in a tirade against bigotry.
She even provides a physical counterbalance to the formidable, matriarchal Jamison, who, unheralded in the credits, emerges from official retirement to redefine the meaning of walking. Yes. Walking.
On occasions less festive and less costly than this, Smith merely becomes a disembodied voice on tape. This, no doubt, causes a drastic shift in aesthetic focus. Lewis Segal will report on it later this week.
With or without Smith's presence, "Hymn" must function as a canny, episodic ode to Ailey. Jamison insists that the hymn always be about him .
She begins and ends the piece with Ailey's voice delivering platitudes via a badly distorted tape as a spotlight picks out an empty stool on a bare stage. She invokes familiar images from the Ailey repertory to define moods and creeds, gives each soloist a vocabulary of movement that lends depth and nuance to the libretto. She isolates and/or tangles bodies with knowing musicality, makes telling use of dramatic gesture and ignores the idiotic rules of typecasting that made men active and women passive.
She shows special respect for Ailey's respect for show-biz bombast. At climax time, she resorts without apology to the big, sweeping unison gestures that the lost one loved. Passionate exclamation points telegraph catharsis, on cue.
"Hymn" is adorned with properly Aileyesque costumes by Toyce Anderson (lots of skin, real and simulated; also picturesque tights and crimson capes). The set, attributed to Timothy Hunter, Daniel Bonitsky and Donald J. Oberpriller, consists primarily of a shiny-wavy back-curtain that collapses symbolically at the end.
The first half of the evening was devoted to a revival of John Butler's "Carmina Burana," created for the New York City Opera in 1959 and first danced by the Ailey company in 1973. They don't make ballets like that any more, and that may be just as well.