Dancers live to be challenged, but they also like to do what they do best. In works new to the Ailey company this season, you can see the magnificent performers trying to strike a balance: to make what’s risky possible but not too comfortable. Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section debuted in 1983 as the finale of The Catherine Wheel. Shedding all vestiges of the whiny, squabbling characters they’d been playing, her dancers flew back onstage clothed in gold. The complexity and speed of the choreography challenges the Ailey pros; they attack it the way a lioness wrestles a kill into submission. Coached by former Tharp dancer Shelley Washington, they do triumph, even if they’re inevitably less at ease than the original performers were.
In this dance, women take running leaps and hurtle into men’s arms. People soar onstage, dash out, and vault back on to charge across in skeins of leaps, spins, and fast footwork. They form giant wheels with trickily shifting inner parts. For Tharp, virtuosity is a form of heroism. There’s no time for complacency or self-congratulation; the “ooh, I’m so sexy!” Ailey smile rarely appears. The dancers’ lust to master this superb choreography is in itself exhilarating. You want to cheer when Khilea Douglass and Tina Monica Williams nail the combo of David Byrne’s sighing lyrics and Tharp’s daredevil steps, or when Chris Jackson spins with furious perfection. “That’s the way we live,” sings Byrne. On the edge.
Karole Armitage’s premiere, Gamelan Gardens, set to Lou Harrison’s concerto for violin, cello, and gamelan, melds precise strength with watery flow. Sometimes the 12 dancers seem to be wading in the music. The variously colored side curtains by David Salle and E.J. Corrigan, Clifton Taylor’s lighting, and Peter Speliopoulos’s loose-fitting but sporty white costumes abet that feeling of a peaceful kingdom. Courtney Brené Corbin seems to be the only aggressive person, breaking in on the supple, almost incantatory solo that Glenn Allen Sims performs so beautifully, and twining around him.
The rippling quality of some movements makes unison difficult; everyone has a different timing, as if finding it hard to regulate what feels impulsive. Maybe that why Armitage’s imaginatively engineered encounters, such as those for Briana Reed and Williams, Abdur-Rahim Jackson and Willy Laury, stand out as particularly fascinating. There’s a hint of a scenario—everyone gazes at something moving across the sky; Corbin and Sims walk offstage hand in hand at the end—but I’m not sure what it is.
Uri Sands once danced with the Ailey company. He understands the dancers’ strength: full-throttle power, drama, litheness. But he too challenges them in his Existence Without Form. Wendy White Sasser probably never imagined she’d stand with her back to the audience, leaning to one side, for almost the entire first movement of a piece. That’s how the whole group of seven begins. Clumped in a corner under a rain of light (by Al Crawford), one after another leans, collapses, recovers; but even when they leap and roll with satisfying wildness around Sasser, she remains still.
The ensemble work as a whole is the weakest aspect of Existence. We never quite understand how the events of the dance affect the group. More striking is the duet in which Clifton Brown finally rouses Sasser (now in a backbend) by crawling slowly beneath the arch of her body so that he can crawl along bearing her weight and eventually dance her back to vitality. Even more terrific is the frolic for tall, leggy Alicia J. Graf and shorter, sturdier Hope Boykin, both knockout performers. Leaping playfully around each other, racing on- and offstage, they’re vibrantly alive. In the piece’s wonderful ending, they weave between the still figures of the others, binding them together with soaring loops of dancing.