Carolina Performing Arts brought one of the great American dance companies to UNC's Memorial Hall for two nights – and both sold out. The eager audience got what it came for, and more, on this lucky Friday the 13th. The young boy three seats down, who had leaned over to ask me, anxiously – "are they any good?" – left the hall stunned and ecstatic after an encore that had the crowd swaying in the aisles.
It is a daunting undertaking to review a superlative company like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, especially when one sees it on tour, rather than on its home stage, where one might compare this or that previous performance. The dancers' presence is so powerful, their technique so formidable, their lines so lovely, their physical daring and their emotional openness so thrilling, that the viewer is quickly lifted past her mind's nattering mental note-taking and launched into the nonverbal aural, visual and kinetic world of the stage. This should always happen, of course, but the consuming aesthetic experience is too often elusive in the theater.
The program opened with a delightfully ambiguous work, "Love Stories," from 2004. Choreographed by AAADT Artistic Director Judith Jamison with Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, and set to music by Stevie Wonder and Darrin Ross, the dance combined the classical modernism of the Ailey style with Battle's intellect and humor and Harris' driving hip-hop brilliance. Although its imagery does include lovers of the kind the title would evoke in most viewers, it also deals with the reciprocal love of the student and the teacher – Ailey – and of the artist for his work. The way these love strands braid themselves into the DNA capable of generating stage magic seems to be the subject of the dance.
The second dance on the program was Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen's clever "Solo" from 1997, set to music by J.S. Bach. Danced by three men in costumes identical except for the color of their T-shirts, it is an amusing riff on the practice of soloing. Only one man dances at a time, although, as the pace picks up, they overlap a little while the new entrant chases the soloist off the stage for the next round of friendly competition. The men – Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Jamar Roberts and Kirven J. Boyd – were spectacular as they burst onstage with explosive leaps and whirling turns, creating a cyclonic pattern that shot one dancer out as it pulled another in.
With "Vespers," a 1986 work for six women by the late Ulysses Dove (a former AAADT member), we progressed to the meatier part of the program. This is a tough dance – and physically challenging for the dancers, who spend a great deal of time leaping with apparent abandon and actual control onto the seats of wooden chairs. The piece is replete with ritual and religious references, and these dangerous leaps onto the small uncertain chair platforms seem a synthesizing metaphor for the dual Christian pursuit of both faith and works. All of the women were splendid. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood is surely one of the best female dancers in the country today, but for sheer electricity, no one could match Hope Boykin (who had also appeared in "Love Stories," where she was equally vivid). It turned out that this was Boykin's first chance as an Ailey dancer to perform for the homefolks – she's from Durham – and she was stupendous.
The final act was the company's signature "Revelations," choreographed by Ailey himself in 1960. If you've never seen this work, you need to. If you have seen it, you will want to see it again and again. It is a suite of dances set to traditional spirituals, and has a powerful dramatic arc slicing through a welter of passionate emotion. It has fabulous décor and lighting and gorgeous costumes, rich with color. It has, in fact, everything to make a full and unified work of art. But what is perhaps even more remarkable is that the company dances it as if it were all new, rather than a work 40 years and more in the repertory. Each song is so beautiful that it is hard to note the high spots, but "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" is still giving me goose bumps (I think Boykin was actually levitating in this one). The entire "Take Me to the Water" section is very powerful, and it culminates with the male solo "I Want to be Ready (I want to be ready to die)," danced here by Matthew Rushing. It is incredibly poignant to see a man like this, at the very peak of physical strength and beauty, prayerfully wrestling with mortality and asserting faith in life beyond the body.
From that point, the work swells to a joyous crescendo with "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." There is nothing like a stage full of first-rate dancers moving together, and when they are all dressed to the nines in black, white and golden yellow, it is just completely swell. When all the patterns came back around and the dancers brought the dance to its rousing conclusion, the entire audience as one body roared to its feet. Fortunately the company was prepared for the unending ovations: after several minutes of curtain calls, a dancer cued the music and the troupe spun into a high-tempo encore, still rocking those souls, this time to the thunderous beat of thousands of hands clapping in time.