Making their annual week-long appearance as they have done since 1968 at UC Berkeley’s CAL Performances, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s “Program C” on Thursday night was indeed an evening of “C’s.” Oh, the grade — if such a thing applies — was an “A.” Suitably, however, the third letter of the alphabet’s spelled community (and more “C’s” to come) in the night’s ballets: two Bay Area premieres, a duet and a classic.
Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Shechter’s Uprising opened the show with conflict, coercion, control, and confinement. Seven men dressed in dungarees emerged from the smoky darkness to stand in passé (a one-legged position with the second leg folded to rest the foot on the opposing knee), an arrangement that amounted to confrontation. Lit brilliantly by Lee Curran with a horizontal band of blazing light — or, at other moments, with shard-like, isolating shafts from above — the impression was one of interrogation, but of a kind that wasn’t seeking answers as much as looking to intimidate. A percussive score by Shechter, who often writes the music for his dances, referenced all manner of sound: assaultive pounding, torrential rain on a tin roof, rumbling thunder, and in the piece’s final seconds, a few measures reminiscent of French opera.
The dancers operated as if by remote control, grasping each other’s heads in locked duets. Crouched and skittering in clusters of two or three, they ran pell-mell with arms held low behind them. Bursts of dazzling unison movement or stillness, lying prone on their sides with one arm lifted skyward in futile supplication or simply as a place-marker, every gesture and gyration had a distinct rhythm. A “slap circle,” the piece’s only near-comic moment, saw each dancer playfully smack their neighbor's back in turn, quickly paced itself into a bout of wrestling. Intriguing and disturbing juxtapositions of tender touches, violent undercurrents, and ambiguous power plays characterize Uprising, a rare dance work that could have gone on for twice as long and never ceased to be fascinating.
Arriving in stark contrast, Suspended Women was all curvaceous collapse, with the company’s female dancers swooning and swirling like an elegant swarm of bees whose colony was under constant threat of extinction. Choreographer Jacqulyn Buglisi mostly mirrored Maurice Ravel’s dramatic music and made full use of A. Christina Giannini’s tulle, silk, and crinolined costumes — a pastel rainbow that caught the light and added to the ethereal atmospherics. Four men in suit coats, inserted in the work’s crevasses, seemed an unnecessary element, however, adding little but lifts and jackets to the women’s magic.
Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (set to music by Arvo Pärt) had Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims coalescing seamlessly. Curiosity seemed to drive the action, as if being lifted up or climbing on a partner was an effort to smell the air above — or reaching between a partner’s limbs was a physical question testing the limits of the human body’s boundaries.
The night’s closer was Ailey’s classic, centurion-plus-five Revelations. Choreographed in 1960, the work is a celebration of African-American culture. For those lucky people viewing it for the first time, the cast demonstrated an articulation in this generation of Ailey dancers’ torsos and easy, high extensions. For veteran viewers who may recall five decades of dancers holding aloft white umbrellas or barreling through the three-man “Sinner Man,” Thursday’s cast projected effortlessness, but perhaps less shadow and rawness than dancers of the past. Offering the night’s final “C’s,” the company crowd pleaser always results — and did Thursday — in standing ovations and an encore.
Note: Program “C” repeats Saturday, April 25; Programs “A” and “B” differ.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, thru April 26, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, $40-$96, 510-642-9988.