Speaking to the audience just before the curtain lifted Tuesday night on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Robert Battle, the company’s director, joked about how he hadn’t been born yet when Ailey performed at the Kennedy Center’s opening in 1971.
“Oh, fine, just rub it in,” I harrumphed to myself. “You young whippersnappers can be so smug.”
A few cracks later Battle, having charmed the crowd with a tale of first seeing the company when he was 12 — which was, I think, last week — the dancers took over. And they proved Battle’s point, or the one I suspect he was making. Battle took charge of the troupe just a year and a half ago. New leader, fresh start: great program.
First the dancers fascinated us with their slithery resolve in one of Jiri Kylian’s clever underwear ballets, “Petite Mort.” Those bodies! That control! Kylian’s sexual metaphors are not subtle, but the Ailey dancers elevated the material. Their focus was on the shapes, not on preening, and they had a beautiful feel for the choreography’s spiraling lines. Their unaffected self-possession lent more drama to this 1991 work than I’ve seen from other troupes who have assayed it, from the men’s swordplay-foreplay to the peekaboo women in their frock fortresses to the unencumbered coupling that followed.