Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, now in its second year under its third artistic director, Robert Battle, brings four new programs to Zellerbach Hall April 23 through April 28. The difference in repertoire is evident to anyone who has followed the 55-year-old company.
Presenting works by Nederlands Dans Theater's Jiri Kylian and Batsheva's Ohad Naharin alongside American choreographers Kyle Abraham, Garth Fagan, and Battle himself, the company has taken a step into international waters.
Abraham's Another Night begins in silence and Jacqueline Green in electric blue with sinuous limbs snaking through a haze of smoke hailing the entrance of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia." A pair of dancers meanders in, she exits, eventually there are 10 -- a motley rainbow of men and women.
The effect is of silky ease and spontaneity, though the dance proceeds at terrific speed, which the Ailey dancers deliver with the debonair effervescence of truly swinging jazz. They toss in tricks like the random gargouillade almost faster than the eye can see; Renaldo Gardner strolls in with a bag of Cheetos; they dance in pairs and threes, but before the joke or story can develop, it's on to the next thing -- turns a la seconde with a head roll, sissones in tilts, and then the deliberately long lift of the leg or stage-wide pause in pitched attitude -- just because they can.
Kylian's exquisite Petite Mort is by now a contemporary standard, and Ailey's first go at it brought a rare human rawness. As interpreted by a company known for high volume dancing, the opening of the piece, six men with rapiers moving with synchronized precision in silence to create images of beautiful mortality, seemed to lack the hushed quality the piece requires. However, as the dancers came together in the series of duets to Mozart, they brought out nuances of personality that made each pairing a complete story: The soaring romance of Green and Yannick Lebrun, the earthy power struggle dramatized by Linda Celeste Sims, and Glenn Allen Sims, Alicia Graf Mack bound in a magnetic embrace with Jamar Roberts that kept a touch-me-not distance.
Battle's two pieces are brief but distinctive. Strange Humors is a duet and sometimes a duel for men who, like Beelzebub's henchmen in an idle time, are consumed by idiosyncratic isolations and contractions and exhibit the bravura of street dance, including heart-stopping falls straight backward.
In/Side, an introspective solo danced by Samuel Roberts to Nina Simone, featured tempestuous spins to the floor punctuated by moments of stillness.
Ailey's 1960 Revelations, performed ritualistically to close every program, served as an anchor to the company's heritage and to particularly American suffering and optimism, from holy "I Been 'Buked," to fiery "Sinner Man," to joyous "Rocka My Soul," every step a legend. Battle's leadership brings the best of America to a classic American modern dance company: the ability to evolve and invent without abandoning tradition.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs four programs April 23-28 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. Tickets are $30-92; call 510-642-9988.