Although a Boston premiere began the Alvin Ailey company's annual week at the Wang Theatre last night, this program looked back more than forward. The new piece, ''Love Stories," is an essay in nostalgia and an homage to the history of African-American dance, which by definition means an homage to Ailey himself.
''Love Stories" has three choreographers: Judith Jamison, the director of the Ailey troupe since its founder's death in 1989; hip-hop innovator Rennie Harris; and Robert Battle, a representative of the hyper-energized wing of modern dance. Their separate contributions form a loose history of the company, with Jamison tackling the past, Harris the present, and Battle the future. So smoothly do the sections segue into each other, though, that the piece feels like one act rather than three. Gluing the half-hour work even more tightly together is the score -- Stevie Wonder songs transformed by composer Darrin Ross into a sound collage that also incorporates Ailey's recorded voice. His words were, alas, unintelligible to my ears.
All three choreographers weave Ailey-isms into their work. The signature gestures include backward falls to the floor, arms that open in staccato segments, and leaps with the dancers' backs hunched over.
Jamison's part takes place in a rehearsal hall, with dancers informally trying out movements for their peers until a dance gels. Harris fills his section with complex syncopation, fleet changes in direction and dynamic, and acrobatics: a handstand here, a variation on a cartwheel there. By the time Battle takes over, the dance looks straight off Broadway, complete with a chorus line that delivers the choreography with an insistent hard sell.
''Love Songs" certainly wasn't intended to tell the Ailey company's story with a negative spin. Inadvertently, though, it does. In going from the earnest sincerity of Jamison's opening to the cheesy slickness of Battle's conclusion, it confirms what many longtime Ailey watchers -- including this one -- feel has happened to the troupe over the years. It's settled for superficiality over substance or subtlety. It's become a reliable, risk-free commodity -- and the audience, which went wild after ''Love Songs," likes it that way.
After the imitation Ailey of ''Love Songs," the choreographer's 1973 ''Hidden Rites" comes as a relief. Here's the real thing.
Set to Patrice Sciortino's clanging, chiming, percussive music, ''Hidden Rites" belongs to the very large category of ritualistic dance that also includes Nijinsky's ''The Rite of Spring" and Martha Graham in her Greek tragedy mode. Indeed, ''Hidden Rites" is the most Graham-like of Ailey's dances, in its use of the torso and its tone of high seriousness. It's also Ailey at his most balletic, filled with arabesques, pirouettes, and other steps from the classical vocabulary. And just when you're ready for a ritual sacrifice, something that looks very much like one obligingly comes along.
A deadline prevented my staying for the program's conclusion, the 1960 masterpiece that Ailey was never able to top, ''Revelations."