“Life After Ailey” could have been the marquee banner for the opening night of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Celebrity Series engagement at the Citi Wang Theatre. That’s not to say that “Life Without Ailey” is in play. The second of the two programs (to be presented Saturday and Sunday afternoons) comprises four Ailey pieces: “Night Creature,” “Pas de Duke,” “The River,” and his signature “Revelations.” And you can sense Ailey’s spirit everywhere. But it was good to see the company stretching itself Thursday in pieces by Wayne McGregor, Bill T. Jones, and Aszure Barton.
McGregor’s “Chroma” was a 2006 commission from the Royal Ballet. The choreographer has explained the title as meaning “freedom from white,” and that concept takes on added resonance when most of the dancers are black. McGregor has also described the piece, which has a white set by minimalist architect John Pawson and a score combining Joby Talbot’s White Stripes orchestrations with Talbot’s own original music, as positing “a new grammar and syntax for the body.” And it does twist its 10 dancers — six men, four women — into hyperextreme declensions and conjugations. But what’s engaging about the piece is the way McGregor’s movement suggests conversations rather than monologues, as if the dancers were not merely expressing themselves but talking to one another.
Boston Ballet’s performance of “Chroma” last spring was quick and kinetic and finely honed. Ailey dancers have their own body language; their “Chroma” is slower, more muscular, more inflected, more rhetorical. The male trio — Kirven Douthit-Boyd, Yannick Lebrun, and Sean A. Carmon — call to mind the trio of sailors in Jerome Robbins’s “Fancy Free.” There’s a melting mating dance from Sarah Daley and Vernard J. Gilmore and then a poetic one from Linda Celeste Sims and Antonio Douthit-Boyd. The last section, in which all 10 dancers appear, could almost be choreography for Stravinsky’s “Sacre du
Jones created “D-Man in the Waters” in 1989 as a tribute to company dancer Demian Acquavella, who died of AIDS the following year, at 32. (Ailey himself died of AIDS in 1989.) Jones set the piece to Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, which the composer wrote when he was just 16. Thursday, the company performed the 15-minute “Part 1,” to the Octet’s exuberant opening Allegro moderato ma con fuoco. The choreography conjures Paul Taylor and Mark Morris; the dancers, skipping and leaping and rolling and diving and swimming, are kids at play, or dolphins, with Acquavella, in the person of Michael Francis McBride, as their leader. Just before the recapitulation, the music pauses, the dancers seem to acknowledge their mortality, and you remind yourself that they’re wearing combat fatigues. McBride finishes it off with a last dive, this one perhaps into the next world.
The closer, Barton’s “LIFT,” is an Alvin Ailey commission that premiered last December. It begins with bare-chested men slapping their thighs to Curtis Macdonald’s percussion score; later the women show up, in bird skirts, and the direction is always vertical, whether the dancers are pogo-sticking or looking as if they were about to take flight. The piece makes for an uplifting closer, and the company looks comfortable in it, but I wish there had been time on the program for the whole of “D-Man.”