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Dance review: Alvin Ailey at the Orange County Performing Arts Center

March 3, 2010 | 12:15 pm
“Celebration” happened to be the unofficial theme for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s opening night program Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the first of four different slates of mixed repertory being presented through Sunday.

Ailey30 “Uptown” (2009), by veteran dancer and Los Angeles native son Matthew Rushing, celebrated the cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance early in the 20th century. Ronald K. Brown’s “Dancing Spirit” (2009) celebrated Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison, who has championed the Brooklyn-based choreographer.

And then there was “Revelations,” Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece to traditional spirituals, which celebrates dance, African American culture and, at base, humanity, warts and all. The effortlessness with which it succeeds was most obvious on this particular program, and it made us glad that it was there to send us, mostly contented, out into the night.

Rushing, who is a novice dance-maker, had hoped that “Uptown” would both educate and entertain, which are worthy qualities for a school lecture. They can make for successful artistic works too, but most likely as an ancillary effect, rather than by design.

Rushing did extensive research on seminal African American artists and philosophers of the period, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker, and they turned up as characters, realized blandly. Rushing fashioned a script (co-written with Gregor L. Gibson) that took the audience on a 30-minute history “tour.” There were the jitterbug, the Charleston, writer Zora Neale Hurston, rent parties (throw a party, charge a fee and get your rent money), artist Archibald J. Motley Jr. and more. It was a didactic format, helped only marginally by the effervescent and engaging Amos J. Machanic Jr., cast as the narrator Victor, the flashy costumes (credited to Rushing, Jon Taylor and Dante Baylor), and a swinging original score by Ted Rosenthal (supplemented by other recordings).

Rushing needed a compelling choreographic vocabulary to hold the eight separate vignettes together, but he relied largely on pantomime. The scene in which five dancers imitated Motley’s painting “The Jazz Singers” was reminiscent of the Pageant of the Masters’ living tableaux.

Brown, on the other hand, is an accomplished and sophisticated choreographer, whose recognizable style melds West African dance with modern dance. “Dancing Spirit” developed slowly, using a musical canon format, beginning with a minimalist design of semaphore-like gestures and exploding into propulsive arrangements by its conclusion (to an array of strange musical bedfellows, from Radiohead to Duke Ellington). 

Robinson The nine dancers entered in single file along a diagonal, “introducing” a choreographic phrase, passing it on to the next two, before exiting. The spatial geometry transformed in a measured fashion, with the first dancers to exit entering again to encircle those still on the diagonal. Brown expanded upon his first movements, picking up the tempo and rhythmic structure.

The incomparable Renee Robinson -- perhaps specifically representing Jamison -- had an emotional solo during which a full moon “rose” in the background (lighting designs by Clifton Taylor). Rushing, his lifted and fluid torso undulations and crisp footwork mesmerizing to watch, joined her in duet. Jamar Roberts was another standout interpreter of Brown’s mixed style.

In Brown’s works, the dancers’ hands “talk” and cavort with an exuberant pointing, fluttering, scooping and slapping. “Dancing Spirit” honored Jamison not by telling us about her, but by representing her through joyous delivery.

“Revelations” too is an explosion of joy, and the dancers expressed it eloquently on Tuesday. Throughout her 20-year career as director, Jamison has kept “Revelations” -- which closes every program in Costa Mesa -- and the company’s dancing, at a pinnacle. That’s something everyone can celebrate.

-- Laura Bleiberg

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,  Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, $16 to $106, (714) 556-2787 or

Related story:

Alvin Ailey's legacy has been kept, and expanded

Photo: Top, the Ailey company in "Revelations"; lower right, Renee Robinson in "Dancing Spirit." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times