The costumes and music change, but what about the dances?
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater added five new pieces to its repertory for the just-concluded winter season at City Center. The four of them I saw in one program gave me a strange feeling that all Ailey dances now are the same. They have different costumes and music, of course, and refer to different sensibilities. But their preoccupation is with a hyped-up exposition of human feelings, emotional and sensual. Ailey set the style for this long ago, amplifying the grief, fear, and exaltation that were personal to Martha Graham and his other modern dance teachers into metaphors of the American black experience. Somewhere along the line, though, Ailey dances became so big, so virtuosic, and so loaded with glamour that they lost all personal urgency. If there's such a thing as a positive stereotype, the Ailey dancers are stereotypes of supremely physical, supremely sensitive beings. Over the course of an evening, they lose whatever genuineness they might have suggested, and finally inspire about as much sympathy as a Joan Collins in ``Dynasty.''
``The Lark Ascending'' (1972) was one of Alvin Ailey's first ``pure'' dances. Based on the lyrical, upward-spiraling line of the violin in Ralph Vaughan Williams's score, the dance has no plot or emotional dilemmas. It seems to be all running and dizzying, circling flight. It also betrays Ailey's difficulties in making more than a graphically attractive stage picture. After 15 minutes of dancers surging across the space, swirling in to the center, bursting outward, you lose track of the dance's progress, and just drift.
Ailey now seems to make all his work this way. ``Witness,'' a solo for Marilyn Banks to the spiritual ``My Soul Is a Witness for My Lord'' recorded by Jessye Norman, could be the same dance we've seen other suffering women and men do in Ailey dances. Banks yearns and strains through the whole catalog of expressive devices - she stoops to the side, reaching out desperately, the other hand gripping a familiar aching place in her back; bent over, she spins very fast, both hands clenching in toward her stomach, then splaying out again; she runs back and forth, splitting into the air almost involuntarily. It's all very intense, but why? What does all this anguish have to do with Norman singing about faith and heroism? Ailey's famous solo ``Sinner Man'' from ``Revelations'' is the obvious source of this dance, but he's rehearsed its guilt and despair to the point of rhetoric in the 26 years since it was made.
Both ``Witness'' and ``Caverna Magica'' were made for the Royal Danish Ballet last spring, and perhaps Ailey thought these formulas wouldn't be as worn out in Copenhagen as they are here. ``Caverna's'' main attraction is a wonderful scenic device (d'ecor and costumes by Carol Vollet Garner and lighting by Timothy Hunter). As the curtain goes up, we see a vague, billowing shape in a sort of cave. Layers of scrims rise slowly, one by one, to reveal April Berry, wafting beautiful silk draperies. After that it's back to swirling, curlicue-gesturing, undulating bodies, this time in harem dress. I can't see any reaon for ``Caverna Magica'' except that the theatrical cave effect alludes to the second act of the Royal Danish Ballet's ``Napoli,'' which takes place in the Blue Grotto; perhaps that's reason enough for it all.
Ulysses Dove choreographed the only non-Ailey piece among the season's novelties. ``Bad Blood,'' to three of Laurie Anderson's nouveau-rock songs, turns out to be still another celebration of sexual angst. This time the movement idiom is disco-ish and percussive. The dancers throw the parts of their bodies out of line, spin as if they were trying to break a speed record, embrace glancingly. When they work in duets, they lure each other aggressively, then fail to connect. Traditional lifts and balances have become daring acrobatics, taken on the run. The audience screams.
There are three couples in the dance, and an odd-man-out (Carol Bailey). Their relationships seem more competitive than friendly, and it's mystifying when Bailey puts his arm around the shoulders of one of the women, whom he hasn't danced with, and strolls out at the end. Perhaps he's at last found a placid love, but the audience can see that the preceding dalliances, however alienated, were more exciting. Who wouldn't prefer them?
The Ailey company will perform at Cleveland's Playhouse Square Center, Feb. 10-15.