Dance Review

Ailey troupe celebrates director’s dancing spirit

By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2010

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When choreographer Alvin Ailey was in his artistic prime, his greatest muse was the powerfully expressive, impossibly long-legged Judith Jamison, who began dancing with Ailey’s company in 1965. Before the great choreographer died, he picked Jamison to take over his company’s leadership, and this season marks Jamison’s 20th anniversary as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s artistic director.

In honor of the milestone, Ronald K. Brown choreographed a new work for the company, “Dancing Spirit,’’ one of two Boston premieres on the opening night program of the company’s 42d annual Celebrity Series visit. Though the work is named after Jamison’s 1993 autobiography, it’s difficult to make any specific connections to her — the dance is abstract and episodic, set to jazz pieces ranging from Duke Ellington to Wynton Marsalis and Radiohead. The closest reference might be the flowing white dress of Renee Robinson, which calls to mind Ailey’s most famous solo for Jamison, “Cry.’’ But mostly this large ensemble work led by Robinson and the excellent Matthew Rushing seems to reflect the essence of Jamison’s terpsichorean life — able to soar, yet grounded, capable of both great passion and ethereal calm. Dancing spirit, indeed.

The work begins with a kind of flowing ritual procession. Unison movements pair long sweeping extensions with softly curved torsos and arms that relax into hunched-over walks, hands on knees, heads down in contemplation. When the music pops into a funky groove, flat-footed jive walks combine with rippling bodies. An African beat brings on rolling shoulders, arms swinging, legs bent, dancers briefly launching themselves into backward turns, bodies curved like commas in the air. Robinson’s swirling, swooping solo seems to invoke the spirits, her arms repeatedly curling inward as if drawing in curling tendrils of smoke. She turns in place, head thrown back.

It’s a bit static structurally, but absorbing in the moment. And the work’s finale is an infectiously engaging example of what Brown does best — fusing a contemporary dance aesthetic with African dance styles. Earthy stomps segue into light jazzy footwork and salsa quicksteps with mercurial changes of direction. And as the dancers cavort, the black backdrop slowly reveals a giant moon and pinpoints of stars.

For the evening’s other Boston premiere, the talented Rushing showed his choreographic chops in a freewheeling new piece called “Uptown.’’ Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, the work is a mini history lesson wrapped up as a glitzy confection. It’s a dynamite idea that is quite entertaining but only sporadically effective as a whole package. Narrator Amos J. Machanic Jr. introduces the numbers and provides context for the work’s nine sections, but he tends to overplay Rushing’s script, which is a little ham-handed to begin with, veering from the poetic to the didactic.

The opening is promising, as Paul Robeson’s haunting voice singing “No More Auction Block’’ seems to emanate from an old gramophone and projected slides show images of slavery, reconstruction, and “the great migration.’’ Then Machanic introduces the Harlem Renaissance, with jazz as its heartbeat, and the dancing begins, with numbers evoking a rent party, the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club. The dancers are dynamite in Rushing’s choreography, which marries Broadway-style jazz with popular idioms of the time period, like the big apple. But the most powerful moments are the solos, especially Clifton Brown as a weary Langston Hughes.

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Citi Wang Theatre, Thursday night (through tomorrow)