Springtime in Boston means magnolias in bloom, the Sox at bat, and the ballooning of the small but fervent local dance audience. About 12,000 people flock to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater during its annual visit, which this year begins Thursday and continues through May 19 at the Citi Wang Theatre.
The spike in terpsichorean interest proves just how high, in the canon of legendary American modern dance pioneers, the name Alvin Ailey perches. This has nothing to do with alphabetical order, but it does have quite a lot to do with the blueprint he designed for the company that bears his name. Ailey’s vision — a company that could perform not only his dances, but also the masterworks of others — was, at the time of its founding in the late 1950s, a fairly radical idea.
“I remember Mr. Ailey saying to us that he wants us to remain open to new styles, new ideas, new techniques that choreographers are bringing in,” longtime Ailey dancer Renee Robinson said by phone recently, “because that’s what his company is. It’s a repertory company, and that’s what he wants his audiences to experience, so it’s our job to be open to that.”
The Humphrey-Weidman, Graham, Cunningham, and Limón troupes, by contrast, were founded to showcase almost exclusively the works of their respective eponymous choreographers, a tradition that continues to be favored among contemporary dance makers. But at some point, when leaders retire or die, the question of legacy must be addressed: Often, companies flounder; sometimes, they simply fold.
The Ailey company, however, flourishes, though it’s been nearly a quarter-century since its founder’s death in 1989.
While Ailey created his share of great dances — most famously, the beloved “Revelations,” from 1960 — the company’s repertory and success have indeed long relied on a generous complement of works by other choreographers, some famous, some younger or lesser-known. The three programs offered over the five performances at the Wang — the final shows of the 2012-13 Celebrity Series season, and the 43d time the series has presented the Ailey company — reflect just that balance. Friday night’s program, titled “Ailey Classics,” is a compilation of Ailey works that includes “Revelations.” That piece also appears in the two weekend matinees, along with audience favorites by choreographers Ronald K. Brown (“Grace,” 1999), Garth Fagan (“From Before,” 1978), and Robert Battle, the troupe’s artistic director (“Strange Humors,” 1998).
Battle, who will take part in a post-performance question-and-answer session Thursday night, is a vivid example of just how important an Ailey commission can be to a choreographer: Judith Jamison, the former star who directed the company for 21 years after Ailey’s death, commissioned “Juba,” his first work for the group, which debuted in 2003. She also tapped him to take over the leadership from her in 2011.
Over the phone from California recently, Battle talked about his own trajectory as well as the young Kyle Abraham’s reaction when Battle called him, asking if he’d like to choreograph a piece for the company. (The result is Abraham’s “Another Night,” a breezy but technically demanding party of a dance, which premiered in 2012 and will be performed at the Wang.)
“I remember that moment when Ms. Jamison asked me to [create a piece for the company] and what that did for my career, and when I called [Kyle] I had a feeling of reciprocity,” Battle said. “It was a little bit cathartic to hear his emotional reaction to it. There’s something of feeling like you’re now connected to the past, to history, to not only Alvin Ailey, but to Alvin Ailey who was connected to Katherine Dunham, and Lester Horton . . . you feel like you’re a part of this, this thing.”
Indeed, Abraham said in a separate interview that what made the offer “all the more special and maybe a bit more emotional” was the long view in terms of company history, and the timing of the commission. It came early in Battle’s tenure, “when all eyes were definitely on him,” Abraham said — when “people were thinking: This is his version of Ailey, this is his vision of Ailey for the future. So that faith in me . . . meant so much to me.”
Not surprisingly, Ailey exposure has trained even more attention on Abraham, whose career is on a dizzying ascent these days. “Another Night” will have its Boston premiere Thursday night alongside Battle’s 2008 “In/Side” and two contemporary works, Jirí Kylián’s sexy “Petite Mort” (1991) and Ohad Naharin’s quirky “Minus 16.” Though these last two are well known and widely performed in the dance world (Boston Ballet performed the Kylián in 2009 and the Ailey company did the Naharin during its 2012 visit here), they are relatively new to the troupe, having been acquired by Battle.
“I was hell-bent on doing ‘Petite Mort’ because I knew that the dancers would bring something to that work that would be very interesting to the audience and very enriching,” said Battle. “Certainly what we’re known for is that intangible dimension, which is soul — ‘Revelations’ being the most obvious representation of that — and that permeates everything in the company . . . so it’s interesting to me to bring that to certain works.”
The scope of the three programs, with their array of choreographic styles (jazz, ballet, modern, hip-hop) and music (blues, spirituals, jazz, classical, Afro-pop), illustrates an important factor of Ailey’s original vision: If one is to accumulate such a wide-ranging repertoire, one needs highly skilled, extremely adaptable performers. The Ailey dancer has to be a veritable chameleon.
Robinson, the last active performer to have been picked by Ailey — in fact, she’s the only dancer who has worked under all three artistic directors — has been just that for more than three decades: She joined the company in 1981 and remained a member until 2012, dancing with the troupe even after her so-called farewell performance last December in New York. An electric performer — she fairly crackles onstage — she can be steely, sensual, or both, depending on the ballet. “She is just a brilliant artist,” Battle said.
And she is retiring. While it may be too early to predict whether Red Sox Nation will triumph over the Bleacher Creatures, local Robinson fans can take some solace in her having saved the last dance for Beantown.
Well, maybe. “Yes, I’ll be performing in Boston . . . oh yeah, I will be under the umbrella in Boston,” Robinson said playfully, referring to one of her indelible moments in “Revelations,” the “Wade in the Water” section in which she glides around the stage, one arm holding high a fluttering white umbrella that echoes her swaying hips and undulating torso. “But if you’re asking me if it will be the last last last performance, I really don’t know. I’ve told myself not to ask the question and put any boundaries on what this phase of dance means to me. I’m just blessed to be moving and performing, and that people want to see it.”