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Dancing the Night Away : ALVIN AILEY: A Life in Dance. By Jennifer Dunning (Addison-Wesley: $30, 480 pp.) : THE JOFFREY BALLET: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company. By Sasha Anawalt (Scribner's: $35, 464 pp.)

November 17, 1996|Donna Perlmutter | Donna Perlmutter, a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, is the author of "Shadowplay: The Life of Antony Tudor."

For disbelievers who weren't around in the '70s to see it with their own eyes, there was a dance boom--an epic period in American culture when creativity flourished, crowds packed the halls, dancers took on star appeal and audiences cheered them by their first names.

That time is gone, so its especially gratifying to have biographies of two seminal figures who came to full flower then. Jennifer Dunning's "Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance" starts out with a novelistic flair that is evocative and absorbing but finally settles for pedestrian reportage, while Sasha Anawalt's "The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company" resorts to routine gazetteering even though it finally takes the measure of the man.

Ailey and Joffrey were wildly dissimilar in what they projected on their respective stages--one brought black dance into serious theatrical consideration and to dazzling effect; the other pushed ballet beyond warmed-over swan feathers to reflect current culture in all its whiz-bang technology.

But both of these founders created and inspired original choreography and, no less importantly, they acted as custodians of the great modern classics. At various points along the way they both also incurred criticism for pandering to commercialism. But this pair of American originals--Ailey, a shambling boy from a dirt-poor town in Southeastern Texas, and Joffrey, the Christmas-eve baby of an Italian Catholic and Afghani Muslim couple named Mary and Joseph in Seattle--shared a remarkably corresponding fate.

What's more, this pair of American originals grew up in an era when the prescriptive "make something of yourself" was a mantra. Both set out to attain university degrees yet ended up bringing historic revelations to the stage. Both formed their namesake troupes in the late '50s and acted as patrons to other choreographers.

Both subscribed to the narrow strictures of their upbringing, which meant concealment of their homosexuality. And both died of AIDS--a condition they publicly refuted, in part to keep from casting a pall on the fortunes of the Ailey Dance Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet.

Well before the advent of the disease, however, Ailey developed a highly secretive demeanor that began in adolescence. He dealt with crises by way of his well-known "disappearing acts" and rarely held a lasting relationship with another man. Living outside the pale of society, however, ultimately proved self-defeating, in his work and his dealings with others. Worse, it fed the paranoia of manic-depressive disease, landing Ailey twice in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital and leading him to a covert street life that included cocaine and alcohol abuse.

Ailey described his early years in Texas as "a kind of rambling, rural life" and grew up with a single parent, his strong-willed, unconventional mother who carted him from town to town, wherever she found her next better job. In the '30s they commonly sat at separate-but-not-equal tables behind a cafe, where the smell of white men's urinals permeated the air; life as a second-class citizen took a predictable toll.

But his experience apparently did not breed a haven of contempt within. Instead he became a poet and a scholar. As a UCLA freshman, Ailey found his way to Lester Horton, whose groundbreaking, multiracial dance company became the artistic paradigm for his own enterprise.

Outwardly fun-loving, Ailey had a witty tongue ('They'll never know what a hag you are when you're riding in your Jag-u-ar"). But he did serious foraging. While developing the choreography of "Revelations," his company's landmark and signature piece, he also appeared on Broadway as a featured actor.

Ailey fused modern dance idiom with black vernacular and in doing so created a whole new genre. His dancers boasted an earthy vigor and stage sense that set them apart from others. There were times, though, when he seemed to stock the repertory with one bit of pap after another, overloading on glitter funk and pop gospel "just this side of schlock," as one critic put it.

Joffrey also had to fend off critical attacks on his company's crowd-pleaser ballets, many of them created by lifelong partner Gerald Arpino. But in the beginning, just getting the enterprise on stage was a major feat. The Russian ballerina Choura Danilova, who had seen Joffrey dancing while he was a student, once said to a colleague: "He look like Western Union boy." A few years later, surprised, she remarked to that same person, "Western Union boy have company!"

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