‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’ at The Kennedy Center by Carolyn Kelemen

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Watching Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform is a spiritual experience. Beauty, power, and strength reach out from the stage to grab hold of an audience. Now, more than ever, it’s time to experience Revelations, a tribute to Alvin Ailey’s African American heritage that has been seen by more audiences around the world, performed at three US Presidential Inaugurations – John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton – and at a 2009 Washington benefit with President Obama in the audience. Hurry, though, you only five more days to catch a performance of the 1960 signature piece, slated in all shows at The Kennedy Center through Sunday afternoon.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Renee Robinson in Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations.' Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Renee Robinson in Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations.’ Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Audiences never tire of this work, and Revelations always brings down the house, as it did last night at The Kennedy Center Opera House. With its floppy hats and synchronized swinging umbrellas, the jazzy ballet is set to a foot-stomping medley of gospel songs. Folks typically jump to their feet to cheer the dancers after performances of “Run, Sinner Man” and “Rocka My Soul,” but last night shed a light on dancers who are often missed in the headlines.

Most dance audiences are content with the usual outlets for expressing appreciation: applause, bravos and an occasional demand for an encore. Fans of this famous troupe, however, are unique: they whoop it up like nobody else.

That was the scene last the Center’s Opera House where the Ailey Company opened its annual (and too-short) engagement. The night, however, belonged to Renee Robinson whose last local Revelations dance takes place this evening. No Ailey dancer carries an umbrella in the fashion of this DC native who will be sorely missed.

Maybe it’s the pop-concert ambiance of an Ailey performance, or the rich gospel heritage it calls upon, or maybe just the gut-wrenching fervor and physicality of the dancing; but whatever the reason, Ailey’s fans are as loud as they are loyal. The rousing finale reflects Ailey’s spiritual upbringing in the Texas Bible Belt where he grew up. It absolutely works magic no matter where the dance is performed or where the viewer was raised.

As for Revelations, the capacity crowd had no intention of allowing the dancers offstage without an encore. After a half dozen standing ovations, the troupe obliged with an effortless repeat of its signature, which again brought the capacity audience to its feet.

Program A opened with Petite Mort (which means either “little death” or “sex,” depending on your definition). Created by Jiri Kylian in 1991, the ensemble piece was a perfect fit to the music of Mozart. Lighting by Joop Caboort and costumes by Joke Visser add to the stark contemporary dance that reminds us of Jerome Robbins’ “Cage,” where the creatures surrounded themselves in some mighty sexy poses…before they destroy each other.

Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts in Jiří Kylián's 'Petite Mort.' Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts in Jiří Kylián’s ‘Petite Mort.’ Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 has become a favorite for Washington audiences since its debut here in 1999. If there is a message in this crazy, mixed-up dance (where people are picked from the audience to dance onstage with the professionals) it is that you better have fun while you can. Advise to those who don’t want to be chosen for this music and dance interlude. Don’t wear red or smile at the performers who walk up and down the aisles looking for volunteers.

Naharin’s motivation for setting Minus 16 is also personal. The piece is dedicated to the memory of his wife, Mari Kajiwara who joined the Ailey Company in 1970. She died a few years later.

Perhaps dancer Alicia Graf Mack says it best in describing the bittersweet performance in tonight’s rendition of Revelations. She speaks of her friend and co-Ailey dancer, “Renee is a living legend, and I have had the privilege to call her my co-worker and friend for the last several years. She embodies everything that an artist strives for – grace, intelligence, courage, and the ability to consistently make magic on the stage. There will be no other like Renee Robinson.”

'Minus 16' Choreography by Ohad Naharin. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
‘Minus 16’ Choreography by Ohad Naharin. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

RENEE ROBINSON FAREWELL (Wed., Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m.) Excerpts from Memoria, Night Creature, Phases, Opus McShann, Love Songs, For ‘Bird’ With Love, Hidden Rites, Cry, and Revelations.

PROGRAM B: Thurs., Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Feb. 10 at 1:30 p.m. Includes Arden Court , Takademe, Grace, and Revelations.

PROGRAM C: Fri., Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 9 at 1:30 p.m. Includes From Before, Strange Humors, Another Night, and Revelations. Check out the free post-show discussion).

PROGRAM A repeats Sat., Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Includes Petite Mort, Minus 16, and  Revelations.

Running Time: Two hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs three distinctive programs at the Kennedy Center through Sunday, February 10, 2012 at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House –  2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.