Alvin Ailey created Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) in 1958 to celebrate the black experience, but also to transcend it in order to bring audiences to a higher place. Fifty years later, the Ailey company is still exploding that dream across the globe with boundless spirit, generosity, and energy.
Beginning in March 2008, and culminating at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few weeks ago, AAADT celebrated 50 years of Ailey’s vision with a 50-city national and international tour, multiple photo and film exhibitions nationwide, and free dance classes and performances throughout the city.
On June 11, I saw “Program A” at BAM, which included Artistic Director Judith Jamison’s Hymn, former Ailey dancer George Faison’s Suite Otis and Ailey’s signature Revelations. Hymn is a tribute to Ailey, created four years after his death in 1993, which weaves a libretto of interviews with Ailey, Jamison and their dancers, collected and performed by actress Anna Deavere Smith, through powerful ensemble scenes and intimate solos. Equal parts history, manifesto and ode, Hymn is the perfect opener. This year, in a restaging by Associate Artistic Director Masazumi Chaya, a new generation of dancers interpreted the text and added their own layers to the story. I spoke with Rachael McLaren, the newest female company member, about this anniversary year and Ailey’s work. For her, performing Hymn is an opportunity to connect with the man she never met. “He touched so many peoples’ lives around the world,” she said, “and since I never got to meet him, it’s really special to be a part of a pure tribute to him.”
As Hymn opens, the stage is dark except for an empty stool in a circle of light. We hear Ailey talking about his desire to showcase “the beauty and elegance of black people,” to share his “blood memories” of rural Texas in the early 30s. Cut to the entire company in black leotards and bright-colored pants, throbbing, reaching and exploding to an infectious drum beat, devouring the stage with voracious energy.
The recorded voices and bodies onstage continue to mirror and celebrate each other. We hear a dancer’s recorded voice: “I think there’s a beauty in ugliness too—a uniqueness.” McLaren would agree. “Ailey didn’t want a company of cookie-cutter dancers,” she said. “He wanted all of his dancers to be individuals.”
Another dancer: “In Africa they just live. Eat. Sleep. My grandmother, she doesn’t have to mask herself, she’s just there.” Yusha-Marie Sorzano carves simple, impeccable shapes.
There are patches of questionable choreographic and musical choices. “I believe in spirit,” we hear, “and then I believe a manifestation of spirit is dance.” This sentence is then broken and repeated to techno music. “Dance, dance, dance!” and “Spirit! Spirit! Spirit!” it echoes. It becomes a bit Dancing with the Stars. In a section called Survivor, about performing in the face of a bomb threat, Guillermo Asca, clad in all black, menaces the other dancers. Is he playing the terrorist? This is not the only section that feels a little too mimetic.
But these minor snags are negligible in relation to the great tapestry of honesty, hope, and vitality that the Ailey dancers create. Choreography that might seem trite on another company is alive and deep here. My own default setting is rather critical, but my critical faculties were smashed into irrelevance by the performers’ generosity of spirit and their bone-deep celebration of life. They are so human on such a gut-level that intellect takes a backseat. How refreshing to be brought back into the passionate roots of dance. For the rest of the program I basked in a newfound openness; I had been given permission to let go and just feel.
Ailey believed dance should be accessible. “One of the promises of my company,” he said, “is that its repertoire will include pieces ordinary people can understand.”
A common misperception is that artists must choose between what is accessible and popular, and what is abstruse and thus deep. Seeing Ailey perform is a lesson in deep and accessible. His legacy is a common ground that is beyond thought.
Towards the end, Kirven J. Boyd clasps his heart and then offers it to us, a gesture that threatens pure cheese. But, I believe him wholeheartedly.
Suite Otis is Faison’s 1972 “playful battle of the sexes” and tribute to Otis Redding. Both men and women wear eye-popping pink satin that could easily be atrocious, but on these dancers it is fantastic. This is not your garden-variety courtship game of chase; men and women alike brashly strut their stuff. The men stand in a line facing upstage and swing their hips; it’s delicious. A man and woman clasp each other, smiling saucily, cheeks pressed, bums out, as they prance across stage. The woman’s dress is flouncy and bounces delightfully in time with her hips. When Redding sings “Satisfaction” they wobble their knees and swing each other. Again, something tells me this choreography could easily be trite if worn by other dancers. But their movement is not about the movement anymore; it is straight up palpable and contagious joy.
Abdur-Rahim Jackson, in particular, is superlative. He is such an innate mover that choreography looks like improvisation on him. Even as he walks, smiling slyly, multiple rhythms shudder through his torso. His body hums, sings; he’s not on stage, he’s just having too much fun.
Ailey said that one of America’s richest treasures was the cultural heritage of the African-American: “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.” Revelations (1960) dances these words and transcends them. Inspired by memories of attending Baptist services in Texas as a child, traditional spirituals fuel Ailey’s legendary 1960 triptych of “getting up off the ground,” “purification” and then “jubilation.”
In order to round out my understanding of this 50th anniversary celebration, I watched the oldest recording of the company I could find: a 1962 film of Revelations, performed by Ailey himself and his then-new company. Certainly, the seven dancers have nowhere near the virtuosic technique required of today’s Ailey dancers, but still they are transported and riveting. They convulse in religious ecstasy, hinge backwards in yearning surrender.
Ailey’s movement is innate, and his hands are extraordinarily expressive. Sinner Man is wild and ragged. The woman who beckons the devoted in Wade in the Water makes you believe the waves are made of her tears.
I was ready to be disappointed by this year’s rendition, thinking that today’s generation couldn’t possibly have as much soul. I was wrong. I Been ’Buked opens the piece with the company shoulder to shoulder like a stand of trees, resolute and calm, yellow light on their faces, like they’re sharing each other’s souls. They extend their arms to circle out and up. When one hand skips and shoots up a few inches faster than the others, it is poetry.
Take Me To The Water is full and indulgent and colored white and blue. The swaying hips on the men and women are grounded and earthy. I spoke to Matthew Rushing, the most senior male in the company about what this section means to him. “Wade in the Water is very special to me because I have a very strong spiritual background. When I first saw the company, I had just recently been baptized and since then I had wanted to perform that role. I waited, watching backstage for eight years and was finally cast.” Rosalyn Deshauteurs must have a similar personal inspiration, because when she is baptized she becomes ecstatic.
In I Wanna be Ready, Glenn Allen Sims’ hinges backwards and swoops to the floor rival Ailey’s. The raggedness of Sinner Man has been passed along the generations to Chris Jackson, Antonio Douthit and Abdur-Rahim Jackson. While they are mind-bendingly virtuosic, they are also somehow raw and wild. The fall to the floor in cannon is still epic.
In the final “yellow section,” the women fan fiercely, scolding their partners. The mere gesture of the women’s hands on their hips speaks volumes through the ages; you can see their mothers and mothers’ mothers through the crooks of their elbows. During Rocka My Soul, Abdul-Rahim Jackson is at it again. The music is in his blood. He throws his head back and can’t help laughing. By the end, I am crying. I have fallen in love.
Ailey’s 50th anniversary celebration coincided, of course, with another tremendous milestone in black history: both Rushing and McLaren agreed that the excitement over Barack Obama’s taking office this year further amplified the energy surrounding Ailey’s tour. So, when Obama and his family came to see Ailey perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in February, the energy in the theater was electric. Rushing recalls that “when Obama stepped into the theater everyone went crazy. The dancers back stage were trying to peek out; there was such an energy onstage and backstage and in the house.”
“There is something special,” McLaren says. “There is a connection there in celebrating the African-American experience, but it’s not just about that, it’s about bringing everyone together. Revelations is very specific to the black experience, but any person in the world can relate to it because it’s a human experience.”
ERIKA EICHELBERGER is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn.