Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims, with Jessye Norman, at right, at City Center. (Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)
On Wednesday evening Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater settled into City Center for its annual season with a nod to the past and a look to the future. Amid the din of shrill greetings — this was a gala, after all — Samuel Lee Roberts worked his way across the stage, jabbing the tips of his toes into the floor until his knees buckled and his spine contorted inelegantly. It was an arresting and, for Ailey, an unusual sight, yet few grasped that “Minus 16,” by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, had even begun.
This introduction requires a dancer to perform an improvised solo rooted in Gaga, a method of training that focuses more on sensation than technique. In “Minus 16,” based on excerpts from Mr. Naharin’s past works and a welcome addition to last season’s repertory, dancers trade their customary expressions of joy or sorrow for impassive stares.
Once the lights go down, the true opening features the cast wearing suits and seated on chairs arranged in a wide semicircle. One by one, the dancers rise up and arch their backs like a wave; the last one crashes onto the floor. The aggressive pattern, militant and harrowing, repeats as the dancers disrobe by hurling their jackets and pants to the middle of the stage.
Like Alvin Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece “Revelations,” which closed the program, “Minus 16” explores facets of the human condition, some dark and others light. (A voice-over in the beginning points out “the fine line that separates madness from sanity.”)
Later, dancers select audience members as partners for duets. These are tender and awkward and change with each performance. Eventually the cast lies on the floor; one amateur remains. On Wednesday it was a woman in a sparkling blouse: sweet and vulnerably game, she struggled to rouse her partner from the floor. When he wouldn’t budge, she tiptoed meekly offstage.
The comedian and actress Mo’Nique, the program’s honorary chairwoman, noted after intermission: “For the sister who came up here on this stage with the beautiful rhinestone top and the black bottom, girl, I got his number.”
Before the curtain rose on “Revelations,” there were more speeches, including one by the artistic director, Robert Battle; the best part was when he thanked Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s for their support, adding: “You see this suit? I didn’t get it from either of those stores.” But what should have been a meaty ending — a performance of “Revelations” to live gospel music featuring Jessye Norman, Anika Noni Rose and Brian Stokes Mitchell — was less than exhilarating.
The main musicians, performing at the back of the stage, rendered the choreography murky and reduced the dancing space, while the guest singers, hovering too close to the dancers, made sections look like early ’80s music videos. Mr. Mitchell flubbed a line in “I Wanna Be Ready,” which caused a momentary hesitation in Antonio Douthit’s otherwise gorgeous leg extension.
And even though Ms. Rose stood off to one side for “Sinner Man,” her spotlight distracted from the explosive dancing of Jamar Roberts, Yannick Lebrun and Kirven James Boyd. In this instance live music sucked the life right out of “Revelations.” At least there are plenty more chances to get it right.