Vision of grace

Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater delivers soulful interpretation of founder's creation

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Andrew Eccles/Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation

Linda Celeste Sims of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was among the dancers who thrilled a nearly sold-out Lied Center audience Tuesday evening. The New York-based company will perform today through Sunday at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo., to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.

The legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gave the Lied Center audience all they could have asked for Tuesday evening in a program opening with two new works created in 2003 and concluding with Ailey's own "Revelations."

For two hours onstage the dancers created the illusions of effortlessness and weightlessness as they danced stories, emotions, music, humor, hopes and dreams. The men of the company were impressively physical yet graceful; the women were unbelievably lithe even by the standards of ballet and modern dance. The evening's program, under artistic director Judith Jamison and associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya, showed why (if anyone doubted) this group is one of the most highly-regarded dance companies in the world.

The program's first work, "Heart Song," choreographed by the renowned Alonzo King, presented a series of nine vignettes, set to Moroccan music: strings, and chants with their affecting quarter-tones. The iridescently lighted backdrop that rose as the first scene began set the tone for the evening's brilliant use of color, both in lighting and costumes, to complement the dance.

King's choreography skillfully blended classical ballet with modern dance movements. In one vignette, two men vividly danced conflict, competition and cooperation. In another, two men kept their female partner aloft almost full time -- lifting, carrying, passing from one to the other in a series of complex and sinuous moves. Another number showed a supine man whose comrades were trying unsuccessfully to revive. Enter a petite female dressed in gauzy blue, whose graceful solo dance ended in bringing the inert man back to life as he rolled across the floor toward her. A captivating short piece involved the comic but appealing (and successful) efforts of two men to keep a third, standing between them, from collapsing.

The second performance of the evening was Dwight Rhoden's "Bounty Verses." This unusual and very effective work called upon the dancers to physically interpret a series of familiar musical selections, beginning with Bach's "Toccata and Fugues" and including Vivaldi's "Summer," Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," and others. The challenge was set: What does an organ fugue look like? A violin pizzicato? Yo-Yo Ma's "Cello Suites"? The dancers were equal to the challenge, and the audience was delighted to discover that three muscular males moving slowly and gracefully did seem cello-like, while three petite ballerinas briskly represented a rapid violin cadenza, and massed groups of dancers appeared to be sonorous chords. At times, Rhoden's choreography seemed to enjoy sly fun with dance conventions, as pairs of men danced together, one performing the expected woman's movements.

The evening's piÃce de resistance, Ailey's "Revelations," followed the second intermission. Created in 1960, it is still electrifying, and was stunningly performed by the Ailey dancers. Ten numbers, divided into three differently costumed sections, comprise this gospel classic. As admirable as the first two works' choreography was, the audience instantly felt the greater grace of Ailey's vision. The troupe, dedicated and exacting in the King and Rhoden works, seemed to invest its whole soul in "Revelations." From the opening "I Been 'Buked," with its expressive cluster of sufferers, to the rousing "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" that concluded the evening, the performers had the audience in the palms of their hands.

The poet W. B. Yeats asked, "How can we know the dancers from the dance?" Indeed, on this evening they were inseparable, and the dancers likewise seemed to be one with the moving gospel music of "Revelations." The audience called the dancers back for repeated bows and seemed reluctant to stop applauding even after the curtain was rung down.

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