Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center, New York

The company is in the mood for self-love. Last season it celebrated artistic director Judith Jamison’s 20th anniversary with a premiere dedicated to her “spirit” and a greatest hits compilation of works commissioned during her reign. Now it is throwing a year-long 50th birthday party for the dance to which it owes its reputation: the founding choreographer’s Revelations. There will be live accompaniment on several occasions, a version for a cast of 50, and a documentary by Judy Kinberg of Dance in America renown that prefaces each performance.

It is hard to have an experience that has already been memorialised. By the time the curtain rose on the dancers on the glittery opening night, I only wanted to compare them with their screen versions. But I realised why Ailey dancers can reach outspread hands to heaven, while contestants on So You Think You Can Dance cannot. Even Ailey’s most overused gestures come with an aura of modernist faith. His belief in the distillation of emotion and story into spare lines imposes a restraint on his choreography – a sensual interiority – that saves it from kitsch.

But this saving grace depends on the dancers’ delivery. Too often, I noticed, they punch up the dramatic moves – those outspread hands, the slanting legs – instead of rolling through them to punctuate lighter moments. It’s the difference between a speaker shouting or growing quiet when he wants you to listen: the soft approach makes you lean in. Amos Machanic Jr had it in the meditative Revelations solo “I Wanna Be Ready”. So did Jamar Roberts in the dance’s harrowing “Sinner Man” trio (the bare-chested men eliciting shrieks from the peanut gallery) and Linda Celeste Sims in “Fix Me, Jesus” and the evening’s other Ailey piece Cry.

In Ailey’s plotless dances you often sense the guidance of a memory or situation. Not so with much of the rest of repertory, including Robert Battle’s premiere The Hunt. A hunt? Why? The dance couldn’t say. In July, Battle succeeds Jamison as artistic director. If he is not a good judge of his own choreography, how will he fare with others’? No worse than Jamison, I suspect, and I hope a lot better

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