December 27, 2008

Reveling in Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"

Traditions are a big thing in my family. And, of course, this is the big season for them. So on Monday afternoon, my sister Joanne, my niece Jennifer and I went to the newly reopened The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel to have our annual Christmas tea. On Christmas morning, the three of us temporarily abandoned our men folk and had our customary breakfast of lox and bagels, which none of our guys likes to eat. And last night, Joanne and I went to City Center to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The Ailey Company takes up residence in City Center each December but this year’s stay is special because it celebrates the troupe’s 50th anniversary. Ailey was a Broadway gypsy, dancing a featured part in the musical Jamaica when he started his company in 1958. He was only 27 but it was a time of social ferment in the black community and African-American artists were finding exciting new ways to express and celebrate their culture. Lorraine Hansberry was writing A Raisin in the Sun, which would become the first drama by a black playwright to open on Broadway. The legendary off-Broadway production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks took on the issue of race and provided a showcase for such talented actors as Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou.

Encouraged by Jamaica’s star, Lena Horne, Ailey recruited other dancers from that show’s chorus and began to make dances shaped by the memories of his Texas childhood. The first, Blues Suite, evoked the barrelhouses, or road side bars, where people who spent long weekdays toiling in fields let off steam on weekend nights. Set to traditional blues songs, it was funny, sexy and a little angry too.

But it was the piece Ailey created the next year that made his name and that has become arguably the best-known and most-loved of all American dances. He set it to the Negro spirituals he'd heard in church. He called it Revelations.

Ailey would go on to create over 70 other pieces but he always included the works of other choreographers in his company’s repertory, providing a place for black choreographers like Donald McKayle, George Faison, and Ulysses Dove to develop their talent. When Ailey died from AIDS in 1989, at just 58, Judith Jamison, the majestic dancer who was his close friend and sometime muse, took over the company and it has thrived under her leadership.

My family went to see the Ailey Company almost every year. And about 20 years ago, I got to spend a week hanging around with the Ailey dancers. But eventually it got to the point where I had seen Revelations so many times, that I stopped going to Ailey performances. But as I said, this year is different. So we got tickets for an all-Ailey program of three dances that began with Blues Suite, accompanied by a live five-piece blues band, and ended with Revelations.

Most of the dancers I knew and loved are gone but Renee Robinson, who joined the company in 1981, is still dancing. She is now the only person in the company who knew Ailey and that connection may be at least part of the reason that her elegantly articulated solo in Masekela Langage, a 1969 piece built around the music of the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and reflecting the simmering rage created by the repressions of apartheid, was the most affective performance of the evening.

The audience, as is usual at Ailey performances, was wildly enthusiastic, applauding after each section and shouting its approval at the curtain calls. But it went crazy at the sound of the first notes of the spirituals that provide the music for Revelations. “This why I came,” a middle-aged blonde woman sitting in front of us told her companion as she leaned forward so that she wouldn’t miss a step.

I watched closely too and I was swept along with everyone else as the dancers took the journey from despair (“I Been 'Buked”) to salvation (“Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”). My mother loved the Ailey concerts and Revelations was always her favorite. I thought of her throughout the performance. Dance isn't as popular an art form as it was in the '60s and '70s when Ailey was at his most creative but I think people continue to go to Ailey concerts because while his work is rooted in the black experience, it speaks to the heart of all humanity.

It is indeed a tradition to be celebrated. And luckily it will be for a longtime to come.
A decade or so ago, one benefactor, Donald L. Jonas, endowed Revelations as a birthday gift for his wife Barbara, ensuring Ailey's masterpiece as permanent a life as any stagework can have.


Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

- Murk

jan@broadwayandme said...

Murk, thanks for seeking this post out and for leaving such kind words about it. I hope you'll keep reading B&Me and letting me know what you think. jan