Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater represents all that is finest in the tradition of modern hybrid dance forms. A ‘ballet bottom’ and a ‘modern top’ was what Alvin Ailey had in mind for his dancers, and his company, founded in 1958, in New York is still going strong. Tonight’s gala performance at the Kennedy Center was something of a sandwich: the high-carb, easy pleasing, maybe a little less than fresh outer parts, and then the real meat in the middle. There was nothing particularly wrong about the former, but nothing especially exciting either.

AAADT in Ailey's <i>Revelations</i> © Paul Kolnik
AAADT in Ailey's Revelations
© Paul Kolnik

Winter in Lisbon, choreographed by Billy Wilson, had a retro feel to it. It was pretty straightforward, plenty sassy, but somehow light of affect. No one stage presence was absolutely magnetizing, and the playing-up of old minstrel stereotypes was, to my eyes, a little flat, done without sly wit or irony or any kind of edge. Just a little bit old hat. And, on the subject of hats, one got the impression that hats were just hats here, nothing more. The Lisbon pas de deux could have benefited from something more genuinely aching at the emotional level. The company was on surer ground when they let it rip for Manteca  - highly energetic movements in ebullient formations with yelps thrown in for good measure. And when you have that catchy music by Dizzy Gillespie, it’s a pretty easy sell, and you get taken up into the fantastical notion that you are with them dancing on the streets.

Ella (Robert Battle) was a short sketch for two women to honor Ella Fitzgerald, and that gave way to the grand finale – the old favorite Revelations – Ailey’s own celebration of gospel faith and hope. Deeply rooted in his ‘blood memories’ of Texas and in the traditions of spiritual and gospel music, this is rightly a classic.

Jacquelin Harris in Robert Battle's <i>Ella</i> © Christopher Duggan
Jacquelin Harris in Robert Battle's Ella
© Christopher Duggan
I found some parts of the ‘Pilgrim of Sorrow’ particularly moving – the lengthy imploring arms, extended in prayer – the backs weighted by hard labor of the land – the symmetries and sculptural postures all well-observed to reveal the cry of the people. Sinner Man was an athletic tour de force, with hell-fire as a  backdrop. The all-out set pieces involving the whole company were high on energy and exuberance. Does a classic date? Perhaps. Does it matter that it does? Not really. Or not much.

Unquestionably, however the most thought-provoking performance tonight was the work of Swedish choreographer Johan Inger in Walking Mad. What happens along the way to insanity? What happens when you are already there? Inger captures extraordinary convolutions of body and mind – the angst, the liberation, the fantasy of an escape, the violent sense of disruption, the breaking down of conventions within the self and between selves, the sense of alternating selves. Which hat, which clothes to wear? Hats were used here, but as more than just hats, and clothes as more than vestments: these items reveal the way we inhabit and cast off different personae. There was an omnipresent wall also – a wall along which, over which and against which dance happened – it was moved, opened, banged, hit, bumped against, bridged, collapsed, vaulted over. The wall symbolized so many things, and the texture of reflection invited by its presence (and movement) was deep. If the staging was highly efficacious, so also was the passionate, physically exploratory dancing, in solos, in pairings and sets – a constant flux of patterns and possibilities. Athleticism was visible in sinewy muscles and  emotional disarray in the violent conjunction of bodies in space. And out of these disjunctions and this disorder came a certain logic of its own: the logic of emotional authenticity. We were now far removed from anything frilly or pretty, and we needed to be in that uncomfortable space to explore the darker sides of the human mind.

AAADT in Johan Inger's <i>Walking Mad</i> © Paul Kolnik
AAADT in Johan Inger's Walking Mad
© Paul Kolnik
And what could be more fitting than the mesmerizing accompaniment of Ravel’s Bolero; cut off dramatically at a certain point of high tension to reveal a female alone in the corner of the wall which now seemed to enfold her – alone with shadows, her shadows. The existential tremor which followed was spine-tingling, and as the music came back softly, she was joined by a male partner, his shadow larger than hers, and menacing. The subsequent dance of the shadows as the surveillance spot lights rose from behind was bracing theater. After the Bolero and the episode of insanity came to closure, there was a long, and somewhat anticlimactic duet to the music of Arvo Part. Perhaps anticlimax was the whole point: after walking mad, it was only right to creep back into the newly fragile ‘shell’ of normality. For me, this powerful and disturbing work was the most compelling of the evening; and for the rest, it was good fun.