With 31 years in Durham, 40 years under the directorship of Charles Reinhart, and 75 years as one of the primary institutions nurturing modern dance, the American Dance Festival began its summer season at Duke University with an intensely celebratory opening night in Reynolds Theater. For this big birthday year, the ADF is giving audiences a really big present, cramming nearly triple the usual number of performing companies into the series they are calling Split Scenes, in which multiple artists will share the bill for each concert. The 60 pieces to be performed by the 37 companies will comprise what Reinhart calls “a large museum” of dance from the last 80 years — and will also include 11 new commissioned premieres. For Split Scenes, the programs themselves are as artistically conceived as the individual works. And by juxtaposing current works with a historical retrospective of the form, the season offers dance audiences an unprecedented opportunity to study and enjoy the intertwining strands of modern dance.

The season’s first program opens with a new version of Shen Wei‘s coolly intellectual Connect Transfer, which was first seen here in 2004. A piece about dance-making, art-making in general, and dance’s relationship to other arts, conceptually Connect Transfer is a fitting opener. Although I found the new version an improvement on the original, it remains one of Shen Wei’s less-compelling works, singularly lacking in mystery. The dancer as mark-maker, the transfer of energy from artist to art and back to artist, the thrill of color in a drab world — these are interesting things, but it seems senseless to belabor them at such length. Shen Wei’s wonderful technique of creating both tension and balance by setting fluid motion within rigid structure is not enough to keep this piece from seeming rather too long. Given that the evening would wind up with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, I wondered briefly why the “curators” of this “museum” hadn’t chosen Shen Wei’s Re, the spiritual piece that had premiered here in 2006.

But that would have skewed the curatorial concept. We are to be shown the many things dance can be — the many human needs, beliefs, philosophies and longings that it can manifest. The next work on the program appeals to our universal longing to leave the ground, to defy the weight of gravity and our appalling lack of feathers — to fly! In David Parsons’ famous 1982 work Caught, set to strobe lights and music by Robert Fripp, the solo performer (here, Davis Robertson) appears to do just that in a clever technological solution that makes us believe the images we see. Rather cinematically, the dancer strides among the clouds; he circles above the stage without touching down. The brief Caught is a delight each time one sees it.

If Connect Transfer is painterly and Caught, cinematic, then Alvin Ailey‘s Revelations, which closes the program, is sculptural beneath its kinetic vitality and spirituality. There are several moments when the clean-lined, reaching forms of the dancers are massed in such a way as to seem to be Elizabeth Catlett bronzes given life. It is hard to believe this dance is nearly 50 years old and has been a signature work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for much of that time. Danced here by the AAADT’s younger company, Ailey II, it was fresh and exhilarating. In the age of Obama, even the lead section, beginning with “I Been ‘Buked,” is tinged with the triumphalism that surges out in “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.” And when Rosita Adamo (from Chapel Hill) and Yannick Lebrun danced to “Fix Me, Jesus,” if was hard to see what there could be left for him to improve. Lebrun also gave an amazing solo performance to “I Wanna Be Ready.”

I always love that dance, with its absolute involvement with this world, in this moment, in this body, and its passionate belief in another world beyond death’s door, and the idea that one can prepare to take a place there by right living here. We will never know death’s mysteries, but we certainly can get a better idea of how to live from these glorious Revelations. Maybe heaven is one long joyous encore of “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” and we’re already there when we jump up clapping and dance in the aisles, fed by the manna of motion.

Note: This program is repeated 6/6 & 6/7. See our calendar for details.