Sixty-four years after its founding by its talented namesake, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater remains one of this country’s most popular, dynamic and indomitable modern dance companies.
The longtime troupe returned to the Auditorium Theater on Wednesday night to resume what had been annual tours before the COVID-19 shutdown, and it was good to see these top-notch dancers back in Chicago after an absence from two years.
And there were no artistic compromises after the break. The company brought 32 dancers, the same number as in 2019 when it marked the 50th anniversary of its first trip to the Auditorium Theatre.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
And in a laudable and ambitious bet, which few other companies could succeed in, it presents three different programs in repertoire during its stay (until March 6), each receiving two performances. These include one featuring Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus” and another focusing on historical works choreographed by Ailey himself.
The company’s engagement began Wednesday evening with a tribute to Robert Battle, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary as the company’s artistic director. He is also a distinguished choreographer and a contingent of his works have become part of Ailey’s repertoire. (The lineup will repeat at 8 p.m. on March 5.)
A program, or, in this case, two thirds of a 2 1/4 hour program, dedicated to a single choreographer can be difficult, because a similarity can set in if there are not enough differences styles, moods or even number of dancers.
But good choreographers can vary things, and that was certainly the case Thursday night with Battle’s seven selections that showcased his dancing abilities as well as the precision, athleticism and artistry of Ailey’s dancers.
The evening opened with “Mass” (2004), the most prodigious of Battle’s seven selections, featuring 16 dancers and lasting around 15 minutes. The choreographer said the piece was inspired by the interaction of the choir in Verdi’s famous Requiem Mass, but is set to John Mackey’s “Mass,” a percussion piece with no overt sacred connotation.
With dancers wearing red, yellow and orange dresses, the piece suggests an elusive community. Hints of religion are ubiquitous, from dramatic, criss-crossing light from a single source above the stage to a recurring ritualistic gesture – clasped hands held horizontally in front of the body with palms facing each other.
But all is not unity and harmony. The movements can be impulsive, sometimes even jerky and often a dancer dissociates from the group. In one of the most striking moments, the dancers are clustered together in a kind of circular mass. All heads are turned to the side or back except for one woman who casts an unsettling gaze at the audience.
Opposite the heaviness of “Mass” is “Ella” (2008), the title referencing jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, who is featured here at her best exuberant, scat singing in “Air Mail Special ( Good enough to keep).
Although this piece is only four minutes long, it was one of the highlights of the evening with its fun and upbeat show-dance style that could easily be imagined on a vaudeville stage. It ends with Renaldo Maurice jumping into the splits as Ghrai DeVore-Stokes delivers a high kick.
The jazzy spirit of “Ella” continued with “For Four” (2021), this time with the direct sounds of Wynton Marsalis. With dancing heads, pointing fingers, clapping hands and swinging arms, the four dancers strutted, shuffled and twirled through this showy room.
Other Battle selections include “Unfold” (2007), an elegant, slow-paced, non-obvious romantic duet to a Charpentier tune sung by Leontyne Price; “Takademe” (1999), a witty solo with Kanji Segawa attempting to physically manifest Sheila Chandra’s wildly inventive vocalisms, and a lively set from “Love Stories” (2004) with music by Stevie Wonder.
It’s perhaps debatable whether the company chose to include Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece “Revelations” in all of its programs, but it’s impossible to question the quality of the performance. resulting late night Thursday. The dancers bring obvious respect and emotional investment to this classic, ensuring it remains as fresh and resonant as ever.