Alvin Ailey dancers provide diversity, grace, muscle

Members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater command attention in “Toccata.”

It was a powerful variety show.

No jugglers, ventriloquist dummies or dog tricks.

But lots of leggy women and hunky men, almost all of them black.

It was the 16-member Alvin Ailey Dance Company delivering four diverse, beautifully conceived, graceful numbers in two hours at Zellerbach Hall.

As part of a weeklong Cal Performances visit.

I’ve been watching Ailey’s works for more than half a century, enjoying virtually all I’ve seen.

The pinnacle of this show particular was the 10-part “Odetta,” with recorded tunes by the folksinger-civil rights activist — and bits and pieces of an interview with her.

And marvelous multi-racial footwork by 11 dancers.

It undoubtedly ranks as my favorite segment because I remember wearing out so many of Odetta’s LPs.

Wondrous indeed was the “Cool Water” segment.

Magnificently, elegantly danced by last-minute substitutes, Sarah Daley and Germaine Terry, it transcended the musical strains of the 1949 cowboy standard by the Sons of the Pioneers.

Potent, too, was the “Masters of War” slice, an unsubtle but profound rendering of the Bob Dylan diatribe against arms-mongers.

Spotlighting a huge American flag, combat helmets and light-and-sound accompaniment that simulated gunfire.

“Odetta” also featured a comic highlight of the matinee, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” a classic duet with Harry Belafonte.

Rachael McLaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis’ clowning movements were honed to perfection, and drew massive howling from the sold-out crowd.

Hope Boykin, not incidentally, formed a human connective tissue for the composition, which had been nimbly choreographed by Ailey dancer Matthew Rushing. The ever-twirling ballerina started off “Odetta” with the reverential “Little Light of Mine,” illuminated “Motherless Children” midway, and inspirationally spearheaded the company’s exultant closing segment, “Freedom Trilogy.”

Also fascinating was the use of large wooden LEGO-like props that dancers moved around to form geometric backdrops.

And benches.

The concert’s opening number, “Tocccata,” was nearly as good. Visually striking.

With the males sporting muscle-exhibiting white undershirts tucked in at the waist of their dark pants, the females donning looser white blouses.

“Piazzolla Caldera,” choreographed by Paul Taylor, offered a deep probe of the tango’s sensuality — backed by hot jazz rhythms, wild trumpet excursions into the musical stratosphere, and solid drum over- and undercurrents.

Staged with 15 overhead lights that dangled at differing heights from the rafters and swayed along with the sexily clad dancers.

The one sector of the concert I couldn’t fully appreciate, despite McLaren’s solo dance moves in a pristine white dress making it impossible to keep my eyes off, was “Cry,” choreographed by the company’s late founder and restaged by Masazumi Chaya, now the troupe’s associate artistic director.

I suspect much of my discomfort stemmed from a third of it being based on a dissonant Alice Coltrane tribute to her husband, John, famed saxophone innovator and jazz cult figure whose tunes are usually not music but noise to my ears.

It surely didn’t help that the right speaker kept playing notes that sounded to me like a buzzing chainsaw.

Nor was I enthralled with Laura Nyro’s “Been on a Train” chunk of the dance either, though I did dig the gospel-like portion based on Chuck Griffin’s “Right On, Be Free,” performed by The Voices of East Harlem.

The Alvin Ailey Dance Company, directed since 2011 by Robert Battle, has performed in front of 25 million people in 48 states in 71 countries — and has paraded more than 235 pieces by more than 90 choreographers.

Its range of groupings is astounding.

Proved by the concert I witnessed, which varied from using a lone dancer to couples, to groups of four, to the entire company at once.

Bobbing and running. Lifting and lifting.

With gymnastic, acrobatic slithering intermingled with traditional strides.

Spellbinding stuff.

As I expect, too, was the flash-mob dance performance of a section of Ailey’s masterwork, “Revelations,” with some 200 workshop participants on the U.C. Berkeley campus the day before my attendance.

During the matinee, one spoken excerpt from a taped Odetta interview re-introduced her oft-repeated phrase, “It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens me most.”

She needn’t have worried.

The dancers and choreographer shined their light on hers and it wasn’t frightening at all — just captivating.

And pleasurable.

Upcoming Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall include Billy Collins and Aimee Mann at 7 p.m. April 24 and the Kronos Quartet at 7 p.m. May 1. Information: www.calperfs.berkeley.edu/ or (510) 642-9988.

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net.

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