Alvin Ailey dancers offer up a roller-coaster repertoire

The hallmark of the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is topnotch modern dance, featuring choreography that illuminates human character and relationships. Most of the company's works reflect African-American traditions.

But to view the Ailey outfit purely as a black dance company is missing the mark, according to its artistic director, Judith Jamison.

'It really tickles me when people say, 'Well, you're a black company.' What does that mean? Does that mean that New York City Ballet is a white company? Or does it mean that our traditions are African-American rather than European?'

What founder Alvin Ailey wanted, Jamison says, was to express both the African-American experience and the modern dance tradition Ñ and that the dance is the most important part of the equation.

'Out of 180 ballets, I haven't even begun to think which one is African-American experience and which is not. We ask, which one is brilliant? Which one will an audience be moved by? Which one is from the heart and challenges audiences and dancers alike? Which ones show you the genius of Alvin Ailey?'

When creating a program from the company's vast repertoire, Jamison says she considers her audience, asking what will challenge both seasoned dance lovers and newcomers to the art.

'I want to take you on a roller coaster over hills and valleys Ñ send you around corners where you haven't been,' she says. There should be a constant sense of 'Oh!' '

Local dance promoter White Bird is bringing the Ailey company back to Portland this week. Jamison promises a thrilling ride for audiences, combining exciting new works with a handful of the company's most beloved classics.

Among the program highlights are Alonzo King's 'Following the Subtle Current Upstream,' which Jamison describes as 'kind of off-center Ñ meaning not physically off-center but just to the left. I love watching Alonzo work Ñ and watching dancers really absorb his style of turning ballet into something different.'

Also on the program is 'Serving Nia,' by Ronald Brown. It requires dancers to know a variety of techniques, from Martha Graham-style ballet to West African moves and urban club dancing.

'Ron studies on the west coast of Africa, and he mixes traditional dance from the Ivory Coast with colloquial dance and modern dance,' Jamison says. 'The hybrid comes out to be something very exciting.'

The music in the Portland program is equally diverse, ranging from the use of sitar in 'Following' to Branford Marsalis in 'Serving Nia' and Philip Glass in 'Treading.'

' 'Treading' is probably one of the most difficult ballets I have in the repertory,' Jamison notes. 'It's a duet, and it's all in slow motion. It's so difficult to do seamlessly! It's as if you're watching a couple working underwater, going É very É slowly. It's quite beautiful, an exquisite pas de deux that was put in the repertory in the '80s when Alvin was still with us.'

As has become a tradition with the Ailey company, the final piece in the program will be the magnificent 'Revelations.' First performed in 1960, the company's signature piece celebrates community and the musical tradition of spirituals while showcasing the dancers' astounding technique.

The Ailey dancers, Jamison says, are 'at the top of their form, totally committed and dancing from a very deep place Ñ someplace very much within. Therefore, you don't get a bunch of what Alvin used to call 'cookie-cutter dances.' '

Jamison says Ailey, who died in 1989, was committed to showcasing the individuality of his dancers and celebrating the diversity of humanity as a whole. She came on board as artistic director in 1989 after his death.

Jamison had been a dancer with the company from 1965 to 1980 and then left to do 'Sophisticated Ladies' on Broadway. She formed her own company in 1988.

'We are many things,' she says, 'so when I put a program together, I try to show you a kind of cornucopia of techniques and of the layers of an Ailey dancer. Dance can be a real journey for you when you come into the theater. You can really take a trip!'

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