Since the its inception in 1958, the New York-based company has danced a lot of work (by its founder and others) and covered a lot of ground, serving as cultural ambassadors both here and abroad. It has been capably led for more than 20 years by dancer-turned-director Judith Jamison, who will retire this summer, leaving the company in the care of another dancer-turned-director, Robert Battle.
Even at this crossroads, the company looks confident. The two programs it has brought are a mix of past and present, expertly danced. Last night's performance to a packed house opened with Matthew Rushing's Uptown, a narrative piece invoking the Harlem Renaissance. The live narration by Abdur-Rahim Jackson hardly seemed necessary—subtitles such as "Rent Party" and "Cotton Club" set the scene well enough—but the piece had several high points, among them the footloose swing dancing coached by Clyde Wilder and the movement sketches of such famous folk as W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston (begging the question, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what is dancing about writing like?) If Uptown verged on corny from time to time, nobody seemed to mind.
Ronald K. Brown's Dancing Spirit stood in a significant contrast. An abstract work set to a fascinating musical collage of Duke Ellington, War and reworked Radiohead, it began with a recurring combination overlaid with variations on the theme, shifting gradually from jazzy contemporary to African-influenced gestures and torso rolls.
That left the company's signature piece, Revelations, along with Celebrating Revelations at 50, a short film on the work's creation. A truly American creation steeped in the blues, spirituals and gospel music, it has won fans since its 1960 debut at the 92nd Street Y (the viewer to my left, a PR professional by trade, first saw it age four with his grandfather and keeps coming back for more). With its vivid sets and costumes, the religious imagery reflected in its movement and the twin senses of struggle and joy that the dancers convey, this piece—and the dancers that perform it— are key pieces of this country's artistic legacy.
Revelations and Celebrating Revelations at 50 are on Ailey's program tonight, along with Battle's In/Side, Ailey's Night Creature and Christopher Huggins' Annointed.