A scene from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater performance of “Revelations.” Photo by Pierre Wachholder

Now celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company has long demonstrated a gift for creating work that combines great dance with spiritual uplift. Its sold-out performance at Merrill Auditorium on Wednesday night, presented by Portland Ovations, was no exception.

The New York City-based company mixed some of its vintage pieces with some newer works for a diverse program that challenged the audience to keep up with the nearly nonstop waves of expressive energy that filled the wide stage.

The evening began with “Stack-Up,” a piece from 1982 choreographed by Talley Beatty that set more than a dozen dancers in the disco era. A selection of bass-heavy music from the period freed the performers to show their nightclub moves collectively and individually, along with some street-level toughness. “Get Up and Dance” was the central number and the overall feel.

There were numerous cast changes announced moments before the performance, but regardless, the piece, with its swirls of colorfully costumed performers, augmented by rich lighting and a décor inspired by a Romare Bearden painting, confirmed the strong group identity that underlies everything this company does.

Next up was a new work choreographed by Ronald K. Brown. “The Call,” from 2018, featured five dancers in a piece that moved from early abstract moments, danced to music by Bach, and through a jazz interlude before finishing in a stirring African-based celebration.  Once it hit its later groove, this piece became one of those that had many audience members swaying in their seats.

The third piece of the evening was a wild but fascinating modern work from 2003. Robert Battle’s “Juba” featured four dancers in nearly constant motion that matched the dissonant string quartet and electronic music by John Mackey. One could applaud the sheer athletic intensity of the performers, twisting and falling and pounding on themselves with fists. But, again, the sense of group dynamics, however distressed, was what held the work and its vision of modern life together. Streaks, squares and strips of lighting by Burke Wilmore also made this piece special.

To close an already quite full program, the company danced the late Alvin Ailey’s own classic, “Revelations” from 1960.

Strains of gospel music carried the visually stunning piece through passages that moved from modern to traditional perspectives.  Sculptural pairings and groupings led to ladies with parasols and fluttering fans, their gentlemen friends in their Sunday best. The rhythms occasionally suggested some turmoil but the spiritual sing- and clap-along at the end proved transcendent.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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