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FREED FROM CONVENTIONS, AILEY COMPANY DANCES THARP, ARMITAGE

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on December 4, 2006.

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) — Is Judith Jamison, the dynamic, savvy leader of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, trying to give the company a new look?

Two additions to the repertory unveiled in the first week of the Ailey’s monthlong season at the City Center are by celebrated choreographers — both female, both white, both renegades — who operate far from the themes of black experience, the humanistic outlook, and the conventional sentiments typical of Ailey’s own work. True, the company has gone postmodern before, but never with dance-makers as singular as Karole Armitage and Twyla Tharp.

Ironically, “Gamelan Gardens,” the piece commissioned from Armitage, known for exploding tradition and for brainy obfuscation, turned out to be as tame as the pictures of a Sunday watercolorist. Set to Lou Harrison’s Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan, the choreography mirrors the music’s evocation of Southeast Asian culture. A pair of lovers (Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Clifton Brown) and their 10-member community have an air of languid serenity. Movement ripples through their bodies, emanating from miraculously flexible spines to finish in delicate gestures of the hands.

Time seems to stand still in this peaceable kingdom. Occasionally conflict intrudes — a lovers’ quarrel? social unrest? Some punchy fighting motifs are introduced, a few combat poses that recall Asian martial arts, and a sudden surging of the crowd. These, kept formal and subdued, are not forceful enough to lend the piece the drama it lacks. And then the troubles, vague from the start, resolve themselves magically, allowing the dance to flow gently on, a travelogue about the land of eternal bliss.

Peter Speliopoulos has dressed the performers in variations on a theme of ivory underclothes, with gleaming ornaments on their heels and ankles. They look camera-ready for an ad promoting a girlish perfume.

Tharp’s `Golden’ Oldie

The Tharp acquisition, called “The Golden Section,” proved to be a better vehicle for the Ailey dancers, given their ability to couple daredevil movement with intense personal projection.

Set to a rock score by David Byrne, the piece originally was the 15-minute abstract, athletically extravagant finale to “The Catherine Wheel,” a rage-fueled, high-decibel tale of family dysfunction that Tharp presented on Broadway in 1981. She salvaged “The Golden Section” for her troupe’s touring repertory.

Since then, other companies, from London’s Ballet Rambert to the Miami City Ballet, have taken it on. Now the Ailey is giving it an unusual interpretation.

The choreography, for a baker’s dozen fearless movers, is an ingeniously organized compendium of slashing leaps, tumbling falls, pyrotechnical variations on the theme of turning, and partnering that looks utterly reckless. As is typical of Tharp, the movement vocabulary is eclectic, drawing on classical ballet, jazz, gymnastics, African dance and boxing.

Softer, Sweeter

When Tharp’s dancers performed it, “The Golden Section” seemed as frenetic as the melodrama that preceded it. Its ever- escalating challenges proposed an ultimate rendezvous with ecstasy. The Ailey treats it differently, presumably with the blessing of Shelley Washington, the former Tharp star who set the current production.

The physical feats are softened so that they look more like fun, not invitations to catastrophe. The dancing is lush, not tough. The emotional climate is sweet-tempered. Tharp’s own dancers never deigned to play directly to the audience, but the Ailey’s performers always do. With “The Golden Section,” they seem simply aiming to please.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is at the New York City Center, West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, through Dec. 31. Information: +1-212-581-1212 or http://www.alvinailey.org.

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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