Alvin Ailey dancers brilliantly meld old and new 

click to enlarge Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Berkeley residency features the local premiere of Matthew Rushing’s “ODETTA,” set to music by the famed American folk singer. - COURTESY MIKE STRONG
  • COURTESY MIKE STRONG
  • Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Berkeley residency features the local premiere of Matthew Rushing’s “ODETTA,” set to music by the famed American folk singer.
It’s not typical for a dance performance to begin as it did Tuesday evening at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, with a podium center stage and the artistic director coming out in a three-piece suit to address the audience. But then again, nothing about Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is typical. When artistic director Robert Battle walked toward the microphone to cheers and applause, he responded, “I can tell you the feeling is mutual.”

Since 1968, the troupe has been an annual part of Cal Performances’ programming, yet every year it brings something new. This season, it’s three different programs featuring two Bay Area premieres, plus the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously given to Alvin Ailey by President Barack Obama in November.

It’s hard to imagine a more deserving artist for the award. Ailey not only established a stunning company, but also choreographed masterpieces such as 1960's “Revelations” (featured in all of this week’s concerts), which continues to shine as a testament to faith and perseverance.

Matthew Rushing’s “ODETTA,” a local premiere and tribute to music legend Odetta Holmes, opened Tuesday’s Program A concert.

Made of 10 scenes, “ODETTA” is a multifaceted journey and similar to “Revelations” in its theatricality and vivacity. Dancer Hope Boykin captivates in the first song, “This Little Light of Mine,” and becomes a charismatic figure throughout. Rushing’s choreography is both lush and rhythmic, sometimes accenting the inflections of Odetta’s voice, and other times working in counterpoint to her luxuriant singing with complex and complicated phrases.

These juxtapositions are evocative: They call attention to Odetta’s artistry while showcasing the virtuosity of Ailey dancers. No matter how challenging the choreography, these dancers are capable of mastering its intricacies; Battle’s kaleidoscopic selection of varied repertory also puts the spotlight on their talents.

On Tuesday, between “ODETTA” and “Revelations” were Ulysses Dove’s steely and dramatic 1986 “Bad Blood,” with music by Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel, and David Parson’s entertaining “Caught,” a 1982 dance set to music by Robert Fripp.

Program B’s lineup features Asadata Dafora’s 1932 work “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich” and the Bay Area premiere of San Francisco choregrapher Robert Moses’ 2014 “The Pleasure of the Lesson." The local premiere of “Uprising,” a 2006 piece by Hofesh Shechter is on Program C.

If Battle addressed his audience a bit like a professor at his lectern before the show, it could be because these programs offer such brilliant lessons in dance legacies and current affairs.

REVIEW

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Presented by Cal Performances

Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, Berkeley

When: April 22 through April 26

Tickets: $20 to $125

Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.calperformances.org

Performances

Program A: 8 p.m. April 22 and April 24

Program B: 2 p.m. April 25 and 3 p.m. April 26

Program C: 8 p.m. April 23 and April 25

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Kate Mattingly

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