Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s NJPAC show has both beauty and substance

Members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in "Uprising."

PAUL KOLNIK

Members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in  hOFESH Shechter’s “Uprising.”

Having a good time at performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it can be easy to forget the troubles of this world. Forgetfulness only lasts so long, however; and Ailey is a dance company with a conscience.

When this spectacular troupe returned to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark last weekend, it raised the flag of protest in Mathew Rushing’s “ODETTA,” a tribute to the late folksinger and activist Odetta Holmes. The company recalled its mission more subtly in Hofesh Shechter’s “Uprising” (which has a real red flag) and in Jacqulyn Buglisi’s feminist complaint “Suspended Women.” All these novelties, along with Christopher Wheeldon’s lyrical and romantic “After the Rain” pas de deux, joined the repertory last December.

Anyone who doesn’t feel a thrill listening to Odetta sing that old ballad “John Henry” must already be dead. You can hear the steel-driver’s hammer ring in her voice. Yet in our throw-and-go society Odetta needs to be remembered. We owe Rushing for re-kindling “This Little Light of Mine,” and for bringing classics like “Motherless Child” to the attention of young people.

The movement invention in “ODETTA” feels sparse, however, with the dancing overshadowed in a production built like a Broadway mega-show. Choreographing the song “Masters of War,” a grim warning to those who profit from bloodshed, Rushing makes an important and timely statement. Yet he hands out a series of accessories to his dancers — helmets, cartridge belts, and G.I. tank-tops — rather than grow his design.

Still, amid the hullaballoo of voice-overs and shifting scenery, the choreographer sets himself an intriguing task. Rushing uses designer Travis George’s modular benches to carve spaces in which to work, challenging himself to fit dancing within a snug enclosure, on a tight platform and between the furniture. Ironically, movement comes to the fore in the episode where the performers are most confined. In the hilarious duet “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” Jacqueline Green and Sean Aaron Carmon trade gestural barbs while remaining seated side-by-side.  Here Rushing creates memorable characters using movement and facial expressions alone — the man cajoling as he makes excuses, and the woman refusing to take his bait. Luxuries like projected artwork would be superfluous; and even the bucket seems unnecessary. Although each song has a story to tell, in other episodes the movement seems less clearly to the point.

As the central figure in “ODETTA,” lovely Demetia Hopkins-Greene stands in for the singer, rushing from scene to scene and offering a consoling touch, or clinging to the characters whom she summons. Costume designer Dante Baylor dresses her in a faux patchwork dress, cleverly pleated and scalloped; and as Hopkins-Green whirls across the stage, it ripples spectacularly.

No songs accompany Shechter’s “Uprising,” and it may not be apparent what this dance for seven men has to do with equality and the search for justice. Yet the choreographer created “Uprising” in response to the riots that erupted in France in 2005, following the accidental electrocution of youths pursued by the police. Sound familiar?

When Marcus Jarrell Willis stands alone gesticulating wildly, he is almost surely being fried in a transformer station. Despite the men’s good-faith attempt to line up in a crisp, balletic “passé” with arms rounded and one foot to the knee, they have not been assimilated. Whenever anyone in this dance stands limp and downcast, we see the despair of the unemployed and marginalized. Yet “Uprising” remains ambiguous enough so that viewers on all sides of this controversy may find images to match their opinions. When one man approaches another to whisper and apply pressure, are we witnessing a humiliating police interrogation or the activity of the so-called “big brothers” — Muslim fundamentalists sent to browbeat immigrants in the Paris suburbs?

“Uprising” is conventional in some respects. Its Euro-crash score, dim lighting and the image of men struggling with arms locked feel predictable. Yet the men also put their foreheads together, sharing thoughts; and in portraying disempowered characters Shechter creates an unusual men’s dance filled with soft, stretchy movement and intimate exchanges. Ultimately this dance’s beauty does not lie in its politics, but in the variety of its slippery under-the-radar moves as the men propel themselves hand-to-hand across the floor, and in the interpreters’ strength and sensitivity.

Beauty doesn’t need to be useful, although it always is.

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