Arts and Culture

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returned to Louisville this week, seven years after the company last performed here.

Tuesday evening’s program was an exciting culmination of the Kentucky Center’s first season of its recommitment to modern dance. Judging from the almost-capacity house and the enthusiasm of the audience for the four pieces danced, there is a vocal and eager audience for modern dance in Louisville.

The evening consisted of two Ailey-choreographed dances dating to the 1960s and ’70s, and two pieces from the 21st century. This programming served to emphasize that Ailey’s choreography is grounded in the aesthetic and vocabulary of mid-20th century American modern dance. His work is still incredibly fresh and exists alongside contemporary work as if it, too, were created this century.

The evening opened with Ailey’s 1974 “Night Creature” set to the music of Duke Ellington. Opening in an iconic central cluster, “Night Creature” joyously juxtaposes classical ballet lifts and attitudes with jazz phrases, dancers seamlessly shifting between modern and classical idioms. The shimmering, custom-dyed costumes are almost additional dancers as the sway and heft of the women’s skirts become part of the musical phrasings of the piece.

The opportunity to see “After the Rain,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, to music by Arvo Pärt again was glorious. Originally set on Louisville-native Wendy Whelan in 2005, when she was with the New York City Ballet, and most recently seen here at the Louisville Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala with Whalen, this pas de deux takes on a new and different life in the hands of this company.

The couple was danced by Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun. From the opening sculpted pose, the atmosphere in the Whitney was charged with anticipation.  Green and Lebrun create a relationship that is tender and empathetic, the lifts, dives and counterbalances are an exploration of mutual balance and connection. Gone is the agon-like atmosphere with Whelan and her partner, in which competition becomes the driving force bringing the pair together.

After the first intermission came “Four Corners.” Choreographed in 2013 by Ronald K. Brown, it is his fifth commission for the company. Inspired by the words and music of Carl Hancock Rux, among others, Brown’s choreography draws on African influences as well as those of modern dance.

The lighting design by Al Crawford — together with the use of haze — is a palpable presence in this piece, as the environment ebbs and flows organically, complementing and contrasting the undulations of the dancers. The dancers, again seamlessly, morph from earthbound figures to more traditional Western dance forms.

The third act was dedicated to “Revelations,” choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960. Cited as the modern dance seen by most people around the world in the more than 50 years since its creation, the current iteration is a half-hour celebration of the depths and peaks of human existence.

Set to a wide range of gospel and spiritual music, “Revelations” is both grounded in a specifically American experience and equally in a human space that transcends culture and language.

The technique of this ensemble of dancers is exquisite. And yet, the dancers’ energy continuously masks the absolute precision and caliber of the steps, formations and lifts as the audience is swept up in the flow of each piece.

Tuesday’s audience continuously rewarded the company with sometimes non-stop applause and vocal appreciation. It is rare in the Whitney to experience nearly 3,000 people roar in appreciation of a performance. But roar — again and again — we did.  At the end of the high-energy “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” finale, the company received one of the most deserved standing ovations that I’ve seen, and the majority of the audience remained standing for the brilliant reprise of “Abraham.”

Those of us who were lucky enough to be in the Whitney on Tuesday experienced one of the most quintessentially American dance companies. For those dance aficionados who were not able to be there, it’s not too soon to be asking when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will return. This work is dance at its superlative best.