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Modern rituals and soulful traditions at Ailey troupe’s opening

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jamar Roberts, left, and Jacqueline Harris in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep” at the troupe’s opening Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jamar Roberts, left, and Jacqueline Harris in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep” at the troupe’s opening Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center cjuste@miamiherald.com

The modern side of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was on display at the company's opening Thursday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center, with two dense, visually arresting pieces by European choreographers - balanced by old school Ailey soul. (The company’s performances continue through Sunday.)

Liberty City raised artistic director Robert Battle kicked things off with his customary shout out to his hometown, adding a tribute to "Moonlight," the movie that's brought so much attention to his neighborhood. "I had nothing to do with it but I'm gonna claim it," Battle said to applause and laughter. "We're from the same place." Then, thanking his family and Miami teachers, added "it's important to acknowledge the people and places who shape you."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Jamar Roberts, left, and Jacqueline Harris in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Deep” at the troupe’s opening Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

First up was Italian Mauro Bigonzetti's "Deep," created last year for the Ailey troupe, which combined a haunting sense of ritual with dramatic images and often startling physical iconography, and sometimes the swirling, pulsing moves of Afro-Cuban ritual dance. That last seemed inspired by the music by French-Cuban twins Ibeyi, an austerely soulful, Santeria-inflected mix of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazzy electronica. (Though "Deep" was also occasionally reminiscent of Ronald K. Brown's many dances for the company, with their mix of African, Afro-Cuban, modern and club dance.)

"Deep" opens on three spotlit women, led by Jacqueline Harris, arms rising slowly in what seems an invocation. Bigonzetti's translucent black costumes, and Carlo Cerri's stark white lighting add to the sense of drama. Duets are fraught with physical tension; a group of women, rigid legs scissoring their partners' waists, lay back into the air; the men lean back until they sink to the floor, and the women stand on their chests. Jamar Roberts and Harris dance with hip-swirling sensuality, but he also holds her with a hand across her face, as a mass of dancers advance towards them. Roberts is spectacular; in a solo, he dances with a riveting blend of fluidity and sculptured power, catching Harris up in a towering lift that makes you catch your breath. But "Deep" is powered, and tailored to, all the Ailey dancers' deep conviction. In the finale, Harris climbs atop the huddled dancers, seeming to hover, then balances on the edge of the stage, arms spread like wings, as if about to dive off a precipice.

Swedish choreographer Johan Inger's "Walking Mad" was a conceptually clever but ultimately disjointed mix; of ideas and humor and darkness. "Mad" centers on a wall, a impressively ingenious piece of stage design (the dancers fold, tip, climb, walk through and dance on top of it) also by Inger, which symbolizes barriers in relationships. Renaldo Maurice, an everyman in hat and raincoat, mounts the stage from the audience, unsuccessfully tries to interact with Danica Paulos, is almost crushed by the wall until he walks through it to a surreal world of mostly hostile relationships, to the familiar pulse of Ravel's "Bolero." Men chase a shrieking Rachael McLaren in circles, creepily comic. Harris (fantastic again here) is a desolate figure enclosed by the wall, flinging herself about to evade a succession of identically dressed, brutal partners. Inger may mean to satirize and condemn traditional male-female dynamics and roles, but "Mad" doesn't get past them either. The desolate ending, set to music by Arvo Part, with Maurice again vainly trying to connect with Paulos, is poignant, but so different in tone that it feels like a different dance.

Battle's "Ella" was a thoroughly enjoyable and dizzyingly constructed duet. It was performed Thursday by the indefatigueable Harris and a dazzlingly comic Megan Jakel, but it'll be danced by two men on Sunday. Harris and Jakel rocketed through an eyeboggling rapid, loose and intricate sequence that mirrored a brilliant, skittering jazz vocal recording by Ella Fitzgerald. A surprise appearance by Battle, shuffling across the stage (in his suit and tie) behind three Ailey dancers, had the crowd hooting with startled laughter.

What stood out for me in the performance of "Revelations" on Thursday was how the company keeps founder Alvin Ailey's soulful masterpiece simultaneously pristine and profoundly alive. The dancers execute the choreography with sharp-edged perfection, but they're never mechanical or rote. The opening "I Been 'Buked" reverberated with feeling, and Roberts and Jacqueline Green had a near telepathic smoothness in the moving "Fix Me, Jesus" duet. Jermaine Terry, Sean Aaron Carmon, and Samuel Lee Roberts were electrifying in "Sinner Man." And in the exuberant "Move, Members, Move" finale, you saw each man and woman with a different expression, a different kind of animation, so that each one seemed moved by individual joy. "Revelations" has become a kind of performance ritual, one that the Ailey company keeps richly meaningful.

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If you go

What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

When: 8 p.m. Friday - "Night Creature," "In/Side," "Untitled America," "Revelations"

2 p.m. Saturday - "The Winter in Lisbon," "r-Evolution, Dream," "Ella," "Revelations"

8 p.m. Saturday - "Deep," "Walking Mad," Ella," "Revelations

2 p.m. Sunday - "The Winter in Lisbon," "r-Evolution, Dream," "Ella," "Revelations"

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: $29 to $125 at arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722

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