During his short life, Texas-born choreographer Alvin Ailey did to modern dance what Coltrane's A Love Supreme did to American bebop: He resurrected old-school idioms from the Southern black church and represented them in a fluid, contemporary form. In so doing, he located a new kind of spirituality that was more about humanity, soul, and survival than love for God. Ailey's tour de force, the partly autobiographical piece Revelations, combines sinuous, balletic movements with a medley of spirituals and gospel blues tunes. In one part, a woman in a diaphanous white dress and white umbrella slithers through an upbeat choir rendition of "Wade in the Water." Another part features dramatic leaps and aerial pirouettes from a svelte, perfectly sculpted male dancer, who manages to find the emotional center of "Sinner Man" — sung, in this case, by a gravelly female contralto. The finale shows an ensemble of Southern church women with big floppy hats and fans, leaping and pivoting to the gospel classic, "Rockin' My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." Each part emphasizes physicality over technique, so that Alvin Ailey's narrative gets sublimated into the dancers' bodies. Despite all the clamorous church music, Ailey's choreography is so sensual that it verges on being sexy. Trane would have approved.
This year, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to Cal Performances with a repertory that includes West Coast premieres of Camille A. Brown's The Groove to Nobody's Business, which features strangers waiting for the next train on a New York City subway platform; Frederick Earl Mosley's Saddle Up!, a reconfigured spaghetti western with all the familiar tropes (the sheriff, the sinister bounty hunter, the showgirls) set to the piece "Appalachian Journey" by Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma; Robert Battle's Unfold, a romantic duet set to an aria from Gustave Charpentier's opera Louise; and Maurice Béjart's reimagining of the epic Stravinsky piece, "Firebird," which was originally staged by Michel Fokine in 1910. The group will also perform the old classic Revelations, plus a new staging of Talley Beatty's The Road of the Phoebe Snow. At UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, Wednesday, March 5, through Sunday, March 9. 8 p.m. (Wed.-Sat.), 2 p.m. (Sat.), 3 p.m., (Sun.). $34-$60 CalPerformances.org