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Ailey: Legacies, burning bright

March 27, 2004|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Long before reality television, there were dance documentaries and pieces with cliffhanger endings. A prime example of each turned up on the Thursday program by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Back in 1993, company artistic director Judith Jamison paid tribute to Ailey in a piece titled "Hymn." Writer-actress Anna Deavere Smith gathered spoken reminiscences of Ailey from members of his company and then re-created them as accompaniments to solos that Jamison choreographed, with formal, large-scale sequences featuring music by Robert Ruggieri. Virtually the entire company appeared in these ensembles.

Eleven years later, Smith is long gone (you hear her on tape), and only Dudley Williams and Renee Robinson remain of the original cast to dance their own texts. But even the youngest dancers -- who would have been children when Ailey died in 1989 -- merge their identities with the spoken testimony in a powerful statement of artistic continuity. Maybe they never knew Ailey personally, but "Hymn" unites them -- and you -- in a collective company consciousness.

If Ailey's "Revelations" (on every program in the pavilion engagement) offers the deepest illustration of Smith's mantra -- "the manifestation of spirit is dance" -- the images of dancers cradling and supporting one another in "Hymn" help you understand why this company came into being and why it is so important to dance audiences everywhere.

Donald McKayle's 1959 classic "Rainbow Round My Shoulder" isn't a "Hymn"-style docu-dance so much as a test of survival: Which of seven men on a brutal chain gang will make it through another day?

Reinforced by traditional songs defining the men's hopeless situation, the temptations to escape include fantasy images of women waiting back home: sweethearts, mothers and wives alluringly danced by Robinson in a series of solos.

All raw nerves and desperate yearning, Matthew Rushing seems the most likely to try to outrun the guards' guns, but the virile, mature Glenn A. Sims partners Robinson so strongly that you know he's also waiting for his chance.

Who'll make a break for it and who'll stay behind? If you weren't at the pavilion on Thursday, you won't get to find out until Sunday afternoon, when "Rainbow Round My Shoulder" repeats along with "Hymn" and "Revelations." But we can reveal that whoever wins or loses, the chain gang men dance with enough weight, force and authority to make the experience memorable.


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Today, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Price: $25-$75

Contact: (213) 365-3500

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