Spirit Still Moves Alvin Ailey’s Dance Troupe

The company kicked off their L.A. engagement of three programs over five nights

While introducing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performance at the Music Center last night, artistic director Robert Battle summarized the role of the audience: “We celebrate the legacy. We marvel at the dancers. We bathe in the history.”

And we were more than happy to play our part.

The company kicked off their Los Angeles engagement with one of three programs showing over the next five nights. Ailey Spirit, which will be performed again on Saturday night, features three emotional works by disparate choreographers.

In Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, the lithe Linda Celeste Sims in white pants and crop top enters from upstage. Her sharp movements look abrupt and jagged, almost like a parody of ballet and jazz, against Duke Ellington’s smooth ballad, “Come Sunday.” As the rhythms of Roy Davis Jr., Paul Johnson, and Fela Kuti take over, 10 men and women in similar outfits enter and exit, mirroring the music’s unflagging beat with rib flicks, hip rolls, and bounding, flat-footed leaps. They flirt with the muscle-defining light, while maintaining the relentless beat. How striking then, when a line of dancers somberly walk across the stage while the others continue their constant motion. A reprise of “Come Sunday” reminds us of the sentiment of the work: “God, see my people through.”

The Ailey company’s newest work is Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, which is based on excerpts from his earlier works for Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. His unique movement vocabulary, called Gaga, explores the effect movement has on body and community. It is quirky, ragged, fast, and abrupt. At times it’s silly: Severe-looking dancers in black suits bring audience members to the stage, then suddenly cut loose. Other times it’s sensual and violently erotic as in the Vivaldi duet that Naharin originally staged for his late wife, Mari Kajiwara. It’s always virtuosic — and powerful.

All three programs in this tour, Ailey Spirit, 21st Century Ailey, and Classic Ailey, close with the choreographer’s signature masterpiece, Revelations. With a work that debuted in 1960 and has remained part of the company’s repertoire, it’s difficult to keep it fresh. Yet it’s clear that the dancers truly enjoy performing it. And why not? It’s an iconic work that draws a picture of Sunday morning mass in the Deep South — classic but extremely difficult.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is at the Music Center in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Sunday, April 21, 2013. There are also discussions and Q&A with the dancers before each performance.