The men and women of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are athletic, disciplined, and above all charismatic performers, which makes Paul Taylor’s Arden Court the perfect vehicle for them. The energetic 1981 work for nine dancers — set to selections by baroque composer William Boyce — entered the Ailey repertory at the start of this season, and on Sunday it opened a program that included choreography by Robert Battle (the company’s new artistic director) and Judith Jamison (his immediate predecessor). I hope the result of the Taylor experiment encourages Battle to consider other modern classics to show off his dancers.
Most of Arden Court‘s choreography is for its six men, and these dances are equal parts courtly and casual. The dancers spring into huge jumps, somersault off one another’s backs, and take oversized strides as they cross the stage, but always with politeness and grace. These exhilarating passages are punctuated by playful duets. In the first, Rachael McLaren jumps off Glenn Allen Sims’s thigh as he does a plié and throws herself onto his back, yet he continues dancing slowly and introspectively as if unaware of her. She scurries underneath his leg as it’s lifted into arabesque, and still he ignores her presence. Her perseverance happily pays off, though: The duet ends with a sudden embrace, and McLaren and Sims finally look squarely into each other’s eyes. The entire cast of this Arden Court is excellent, but it’s the men who truly shine. (The casting also gives Taylor’s wit an extra edge: When the men line up side by side to form a kind of chain-link fence, it’s Michael Francis McBride — the only white dancer — who humorously stands on his hands.) The male contingent makes its exit with a series of leaps, and by this time we’re soaring with them.
Less successful were the two works that followed. Urban Folk Dance, a 1990 work by Ulysses Dove, attempts to capture “the complexity of modern relationships,” but it immediately descends into melodrama. The choreography, a game of break up and make up for two couples, has the dancers violently pulling each other across tables, waving their arms histrionically, and burning off steam only through pirouettes. The dance proves the old adage that love doesn’t always come easily, but it stops there. Sillier still was Battle’s own The Hunt, a hypermasculine work that shows six men preparing for the kill, completing it, and celebrating it raucously. Mia McSwain’s costumes – long black skirts with red lining — move beautifully as the men leap and twist, and the steps often pack a visceral thrill, but the choreography’s relationship to its percussive score is disappointingly simple. Jumps, turns of the neck, and the flexing of muscles always coincide with the steady beat. It bears an unfortunate resemblance at times to an aerobics routine.
The evening’s finale was Love Stories, a triptych that looks at the past and future of the company. The first part, choreographed by Jamison, includes a solo for Alicia Graf Mack set to Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.” And magic it is: Dressed in red rehearsal gear, Mack stretches her long legs into the air and poses with innocent joy. The second section, by hip-hop pioneer Renee Harris, explodes with rhythm: The cast break-dances, wiggles their hips, and thrust their pelvises, always pushing the limit. Last comes Battle’s choreography, which is modern in style but just as exciting. It ends with a party, the dancers standing in a circle and holding hands as they hop gleefully. The structure of Love Stories is difficult to follow, and it can be nauseatingly nostalgic at times — recordings of Ailey’s voice are played, and one of his quotes is projected on the wall — but it was an excellent showcase for this group’s versatility and enthusiasm. In Love Stories — as in Arden Court — they remind us why we love dancing.