Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s performance at the Arsht Center Friday night began and ended with a prayer, or rather with an electrifying, raging, shimmering, sassy, full-bodied reminder of what prayer can mean.
A work by choreographer Garth Fagan, of Lion King fame, opened the show. Fagan has often acknowledged his debt to African dance and music; that debt is all over this dance entitled “From Before.” It began with a series of solos, as dancer after dancer — each in a body suit of strong color — moved through proscribed and ancient polyrhythmic movements, each said to call down a different aspect of the creator. This work was so accomplished, let alone downright beautiful, that at one point the audience could actually see the machetes said to be carried by one of the warriors of the godhead.
The dance went on as more and more similarly attired dancers came onto the stage. The music began to change and didn’t stop changing as the company moved in and out of kaleidoscopic patterns. At one moment the company was all calypso; soon the dancers appeared almost as Pac Man figures. Then bam: The sudden reappearance of sacred dance and rhythms. The poignancy was heart-stopping. Revelatory too, as we realize we have been seeing versions of those rhythms all along.
A short piece was followed by one of Miami’s own Robert Battle, who became artistic director of Alvin Ailey in 2011. Entitled “Strange Humors,” it was part comedy, part titanic struggle: a pas de deux for our time, more likely for any time. These dancers did their director proud. Angles were juxtaposed with the grace of round gestures; a string quartet and percussion wrestled as well, while two male dancers were driven by more feeling than they knew how to contain.
A compilation of works by choreographer Ohad Naharin followed intermission. Again, the company was masterful with kaleidoscopic moves in a work that went from Yiddish folk tunes to electronic rock to Vivaldi. Although the dancing itself never failed, the choreographic connection of the parts to the whole seemed at times tenuous.
The compilation began with images of Hebrew scholars; with stunning tenderness the dancers and the work managed to both embrace them and their tradition and suggest the hollowness let alone the danger of righteousness.
A short piece that followed seemed misplaced.
Then there was a pas de deux at least as full of feeling as the earlier “Mixed Humors.” Meanwhile dancers in black tuxes had come and gone. Now they were here in force and goofing on just about all social dances from the 1940s onward, from the skimmy to the chachacha to mambo, even to Bill Cosby’s signature moves. They were goofing on themselves too.
Wry can be a lot of fun, but it isn’t sublime. And this is a company that knows its sublime. Goofing continued as the dancers drew folks from the audience to the stage to dance along with them, or try to. Granted, if ever there was an audience pleaser, this was it. Still, this reviewer wonders why an audience would miss a chance to see more Alvin Ailey dancers dancing, and choose instead to cheer the chutzpah of audience members.
The evening closed, as almost all Alvin Ailey evenings close, with “Revelations,” the signature piece of the company’s founder. One might yearn to see Judith Jamison back in the role that became her signature as well, one might praise some of the dancers in this epic and fault others. Bottom line, the work is so beautiful, so full of joy and homage that we can only be glad this piece continues to have the place it does in our cultural canon.
Ailvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd continues through Sunday; for more details and tickets, call 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org.