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Review: Alvin Ailey Dance Theater makes triumphant, magical return to Atlanta at Fox

Alvin Ailey's Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.”
The Ailey troupe has expanded its repertoire with such works as Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s opening night Thursday at the Fox Theatre was more than a performance. It was an event.

Before the dancers set foot on stage, cheers and applause greeted Artistic Director Robert Battle as he talked about Atlanta’s longtime love affair with the New York-based company. The troupe’s five-performance engagement continues through February 17. Its second program — the first is reviewed here — will be performed Friday night and at Saturday and Sunday matinees.

When the sultry Jacqueline Greene began her opening solo in “Another Night,” it became clear that the love affair is far from over. This sizzling celebration of jazz is set to Art Blakey’s interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” Choreographer Kyle Abraham takes advantage of the Ailey dancers’ explosive leg lifts and soaring extensions, their sensuous torsos, flirty glances and familiar Ailey walk, all hips and attitude. But he doesn’t stop there. He pushes them to drop to the floor and spring up again, fast and furious. He gives them solos that don’t so much travel wide as dig deep. And while the introduction of a bag of chips halfway through was a puzzling distraction, “Another Night” is definitely a keeper.

In his second season as artistic director, Battle is expanding the repertoire with works unrelated to the African-American cultural experience, which has shaped the company’s identity since its founding in 1958 by the late  Alvin Ailey. One example is Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16.” This ubiquitous piece has been set on numerous troupes including the Hubbard Street Dance Company, and Atlanta Ballet will add it to its repertoire in March.

“Minus 16” is a crowd pleaser. On Thursday, it was hard to tell when it began, which was part of the fun. While the intermission house lights were still on and people were straggling back to their seats, stagehands reset the lighting at the front of the stage. They took their sweet time. Was that intentional? Maybe, maybe not. And was it an accident that the curtain opened just slightly to reveal more stagehands, two of them pushing brooms in slow-motion unison? Maybe, maybe not.

As Las Vegas-style lounge music softly played, one dancer stood in front of the now-closed curtain and executed miniature shimmies. He smiled. He swayed his hips. Finally the audience caught on. “Minus 16” was under way.

The Israeli-born Oharin has pioneered an innovative movement language known as gaga. It has nothing to do with Lady Gaga; it’s a creative tool designed to override technique and immerse dancers and audiences in visceral explorations and childlike silliness. On Thursday, gaga emerged as quirky twitches and wriggles in the work’s opening section.

Even if you don’t totally understand gaga — and many of us don’t — “Minus 16” is a great fit for the Ailey troupe. It capitalizes on the dancers’ already vibrant personalities and gives them a new vocabulary to play with.

It is also set to wildly diverse music, from the cha-cha to “Over the Rainbow,” from Dean Martin to Israeli folk songs interpreted by a rock band, and the Andante from Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus.” The latter illuminated one of the evening’s highlights: a tender and poignant duet originally created for Oharin’s wife, Ailey dancer Mari Kajiwara, who died of cancer in 2001. Ghrai DeVore’s and Kirven James Boyd’s understated performance was exquisite. It was a fitting tribute.

Then came the riveting second section: big, loud and full of kinetic energy. Dressed in black suits and white shirts, the dancers sat on folding chairs in a half-circle. Together they hunched over, fell to the floor, arched back one by one in a wave and shouted a line of the lyrics in Hebrew. They formed a tightly knit community until two outliers emerged. One dropped face down on the floor when others sat; the other stood boldly on his chair. Finally, all pulled off their shoes and outer clothing and threw them to the floor. Sadly, the Ailey dancers were uncharacteristically ragged here. They haven’t yet mastered the wave and the rip-it-off suit removal.

They regained their mojo when they brought a dozen or so audience members on stage. These startled men and women were encouraged to gaga with their dancer partners. The big guy in red did just that. So did the gray-haired woman in the miniskirt and thigh-high black boots. She seemed tickled pink by the whole business. The crowd roared its approval.

The evening’s least successful piece was Battle’s solo “In/Side,” performed by Kirven James Boyd and set to Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind.” Boyd walked crab-like across the stage, erupted into tortured arches and opened his mouth in silent screams. Like most of the company’s male dancers, Boyd is athletic, fluid and stunning to watch, but the piece is overly melodramatic. And when you have a company as stylistically cohesive as this, with dancers who interact with such electric energy, it’s a shame to focus on just one of them.

There’s not much you can say about the 53-year-old “Revelations” that hasn’t been said before. It is Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece. It is timeless. It embodies spiritual yearning, joy, hope and despair. I first saw it in New York in the early 1970s and never tire of its power to move the soul.

Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims were quietly magnificent in “Fix Me Jesus,” and longtime company member Renee Robinson, making her farewell appearance in Atlanta, was radiant throughout. (Robinson officially retired during the company’s New York season in December.) When the troupe launched into the glorious “Rocka My Soul” finale and the audience stood and clapped for the requisite encore, the Ailey magic was palpable. It’s too bad we see them only once a year.

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