Ailey troupe is as vital as ever

Rosalyn Deshauteurs (foreground) and members of Sweet Honey in the Rock performing ''Go in Grace'' last year in New York. Rosalyn Deshauteurs (foreground) and members of Sweet Honey in the Rock performing ''Go in Grace'' last year in New York. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times/File)
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2009
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When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to Boston on Tuesday, beginning a seven-performance run celebrating the company's 50th anniversary, two things were immediately apparent. One, this is no empty relic of a company: Twenty years after the founding genius's death, its spirit is vibrant, its dancers' commitment to every gesture total (down to the final extension of fingers and toes), and Ailey's choreography as fresh and moving as if it had been created yesterday. Two, it takes a lot of talent to add something of equal weight to a program featuring his work.

In this case, it was Sweet Honey in the Rock, the vocal ensemble famous for its rich a cappella fusions of spirituals, gospel, blues, and improvised jazz. For this anniversary, the group was invited to co-create a new piece with Ailey dancer Hope Boykin, making her debut as a choreographer. The result, "Go in Grace," is not a work of genius; it is, however, a delight, and leading with a new work signaled that for Ailey's company, dance is still about what could be, not what has been.

"Go in Grace" is the story of a young girl's growth under a community's loving eye. The women of Sweet Honey, representing the community, move among the dancers as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting and warning. They tell the girl how to think about her beauty, how to think about men, how to be thankful and forgiving. The music (written by Sweet Honey's Carol Maillard, Ysaye Barnwell, and Louise Robinson) is generally light-hearted and bouncy - hints of the Beach Boys here and there! - although it also rises to a powerful richness in a death scene. That the girl is deaf is a conceit you might almost miss; her deafness is represented visually by the signing of the chorus, which soon fades away.

The story is shallow. There is the ghostly feel of late-'70s feminism about it. The loving forces around the family are all women - the women of Sweet Honey - and the women are all good, all the time. The girl herself (danced by Rosalyn Deshauteurs) is a cute, passive vessel. She's never angry - at her deafness, at growing up, at becoming a sexual being. Nor does she ever come to the point - as she must, to be healthy - of defying the community and charting her own course. After her father's death, she is sent on her triumphant way. Behold, a trouble-free adolescence.

It's not surprising that she isn't given much dancing. Much more interesting is the story of her brother (Matthew Rushing), a good boy who is tempted to leave his family to join a free-spirited posse. Here, in a brilliant scene, Boykin's interplay of styles is especially fine: the straight-laced family in lockstep, the boys whirling dangerously in and out of the wings, and the chorus tsk-tsking in outrage. At moments like this, the combination of forces works beautifully. One hopes they'll collaborate again; there is a masterpiece in their future.

The program, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, included two works that showed the company at its very best. George Faison's "Suite Otis" (1971) is an upbeat work set to songs by Otis Redding, a ballet in hot pink whose joyous symmetry and finesse is always on the verge of breaking down under its madcap energy. Ailey himself was given the last word with a performance of his 1960 masterpiece "Revelations," a broad, almost cinematic view of Southern life that covers an enormous emotional range; uses a movement language that still seems spare, bold, and true; and leaves you transported and cheering. It will be featured in every company performance this week.

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER At: Opera House, through Sunday, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. 877-598-8689,