Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey

Sequels are rarely more satisfying than the originals, but choreographer Robert Battle just defied the odds this week, launching his second season as artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the company’s annual year-end City Center program. Mo’Nique hosted Ailey’s opening night gala benefit Wednesday, but Thursday evening marked the first chance for folks not inclined to buy $5,000 tickets to check out Battle’s sophomore New York Season. The remarkable results were far more Empire Strikes Back than Matrix Reloaded.

Contrary to last November/December—when Battle introduced himself at each performance of Ailey’s five-week 2011 run—the 39-year-old director was nowhere to be seen. Instead the night commenced right away with “Arden Court,” a 1981 piece set to excerpts of baroque symphonies by British composer William Boyce.

When compared with what followed later, “Arden Court” felt a bit like eating your vegetables before digging in to a far tastier main course. Still, dynamic dancing in the duets and solos was flawless; a shirtless male sextet in flowered tights executed technically challenging footwork, leaps and the like. Octogenarian choreographer Paul Taylor is one of the last living creators of America’s modern dance movement, and Battle introduced Taylor’s “Arden Court” into the Ailey repertoire just last year. Applause abounded, but it was a quaint beginning.

The night of returning favorites continued with “Home,” by the eponymous founder of hiphop dance company Rennie Harris Puremovement. (Harris was once hailed as “the Basquiat of the US contemporary dance scene” in The London Times.) Dancers outfitted in normal street attire stood frozen in a tableau center-stage, unresponsive to one dancer’s clapping. But they soon came to life… did they ever. Gospel house beats from Dennis Ferrer’s “Underground Is My Home” pumped in between handclaps of the dancers, who frenetically set it off every which way but loose.

“Home” debuted last year on World AIDS Day (the selfsame date founder Alvin Ailey passed away from the disease), and includes a brief vignette with a suffering female dancer appearing too weak to dance. But by the time the troupe reunites, once again immobile, it’s clear that “Home” is a soul-lifting celebration. Applause this time around deservedly included many standing ovations.

During the second intermission, a black-suited dandy started dancing onstage as folks milled about, returning to their seats from the bar or the bathrooms. Clearly an Ailey affiliate, most assumed he was warm-up entertainment. But as the lights dimmed he was joined, Reservoir Dog style, by 18 other dancers in black suits. Chairs had been set up onstage in crescent-moon formation, and dancers seated themselves to a Janet Jacksonesque female voiceover. “Minus 16” had begun.

Waves of motion—as in a baseball game wave—periodically infected the dancers from seat no.1 to seat no.19, amid the tribal strains of “Echad Mi Yodea” (a traditional Passover song) by Israeli rock group Nikmat Ha Traktor. As the wave passed again and again, dancer no.11 continuously jumped atop his chair; the dancers tossed their suit jackets in the middle space—then shirts, and pants (all except dancer no.19, who flung himself to the ground each time fully clothed). Choreographer Ohad Naharin dedicated Ailey’s performance of “Minus 16” to his late wife, Mari Kajiwara, who’d danced with Ailey from 1970 into the mid-’80s.

After spirited movement to cha-cha music and renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Hooray for Hollywood,” the 19 dancers dressed again and walked slowly into the audience. With silent pointing, they selected 19 audience members onstage to strut their stuff. Some had it, some didn’t. Some really had it. The last civilian standing, a grey-haired Asian lady, basked in her own applause at the end. The seemingly spontaneous audience participation won a lot of laughter and exultation (especially for those dancing well under the pressure of their unplanned 10 minutes of fame).

Robert Battle killed it again. Somewhere, both Alvin Ailey and artistic director emerita Judith Jamison are smiling.