From the first reverent group plie in "Revelations" on Tuesday, the dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater offered the audience at the Orange County Performing Artscenter a powerful yet superbly refined testament to the creative genius of the company's founder. It's always great to have this 1960 classic, and this much-loved ensemble, back on our stages.
But illuminating the black experience was only one facet of Alvin Ailey's artistic vision -- he also wanted his dancers to present a wide range of movement expression. And Tuesday's three-part program (the opening of an engagement that extends through Sunday afternoon) honored Ailey's vision by giving the dancers major stylistic challenges.
Maurice Bejart's 1970 "Firebird" takes the company out of American modernism into European ballet -- a resolutely contemporary style of classicism, to be sure, but one that found many dancers in the 10-member cast looking unduly cautious.
Using the darkly magnificent Stravinsky score (on tape), the French choreographer jettisons the work's original fairy-tale plot and depicts a cadre of Maoist insurgents inspired and energized by a figure in red. When this Firebird falls after a confrontation with an unseen, outside threat, another such figure takes his place.
Restaging this "Firebird" during the Iraq war makes it newly provocative: Exactly who are the embattled insurgents these days and who is the outside threat? Whatever interpretation you choose, the work remains a potent study of leadership and activism.
Unfortunately, Matthew Rushing isn't the power jumper the title role requires and proved more persuasive in the character's final moments of suffering than in the heroic choreography early on. However, Jamar Roberts made an imposing replacement in the last scene.
Rushing's considerable talents were better served in "The Golden Section," the engulfing group finale to Twyla Tharp's uneven full-evening 1983 epic, "The Catherine Wheel." Danced to propulsive rock by David Byrne, this explosion of joyous, anarchic energy requires a supercorps -- 13 fearless virtuosos -- and the Ailey cast measured up thrillingly.
"That's the way we live," Byrne sings as the dancers careen madly into spectacular linkups, fake-outs, push-pull partnerships and stream-of-consciousness solos. Dream on. If we really lived that way, every moment, as these dancers do, we'd be either gods or dead before sunrise. Tharp breaks all the rules here, so the audience needs to dump its assumptions about choreographic structure, the use of stage space, partnering formulas, showpiece technique -- just about everything -- and simply enjoy the ride.
The jogging, shadowboxing and other sports references have become familiar from other Tharp pieces, but she's never surpassed the speed and daring of this moment in her career, a moment just before she developed an obsession with ballet (and star soloists) that took her in an entirely new direction.
"Revelations," of course, represents another never-surpassed career milestone, and the loving care of the company guarantees the enduring splendor of the experience. If we can't hope to live as Tharp dancers live, we just might learn to pray as Ailey dancers pray, and there are plenty of examples to emulate.
Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims gave the "Fix Me, Jesus" duet ideal spiritual depth and technical surety, qualities also abundant in the performance of the "I Wanna Be Ready" solo by Amos J. Machanic Jr. "Sinner Man" gained fearful intensity as well as technical flash from Roberts, Antonio Douthit and Kirven J. Boyd, and, as always, Renee Robinson held that umbrella up to heaven in the baptismal procession.
The company is dancing three different programs this week in Costa Mesa, with "Firebird" and "The Golden Section" repeating on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. But "Revelations" ends every performance in the run.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Where: Orange County Performing Artscenter, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Price: $25 to $85
Contact: (714) 556-2787