Sunday, February 12, 2006

Always a Revelation: Alvin Ailey's Dance Legacy

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Photo by Paul Kolnik

Dance lovers from all over the world recognize the famous photograph of the proud bowing dancers with hovering arms that seem to stretch across the stage and beyond. In that moment, choreographer Alvin Ailey captured a lifetime of struggle, resolve, and achievement. Today, the soulful images of Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece, Revelations, are embedded in the psyche of American Dance.

Ailey may very well be the most famous dance artist from Texas. He was only 29 when he created his famous dance and it was only his 10th ballet. He drew on memories of life from his rural Baptist church, images from Brueghal’s paintings, and the legendary writings of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. “Revelations began with the music,” wrote Ailey. “I was enthralled with the music I heard in church.” Revelations has been seen by more people in the world than any other dance, and it’s one of the few fully endowed dances.

There’s no doubt that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a phenomenal success, and perhaps the only company in dance history that has gained momentum after the death of its founder. “Ailey is arguably the most important African American choreographer in the short history of modern dance,” writes Thomas DeFranz in his book, Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. “He created a body of dance work that shaped African American participation in American Modern dance in the thirty-year period before his death.” The Ailey Company has performed 170 works by 65 choreographers. The company’s touring schedule was simply unprecedented for the early days of modern dance. As early as 1962 Ailey embarked on a State Department tour of the Far East, Asia, and Australia.
After Ailey’s death in 1989, Judith Jamison assumed the helm as Artistic Director. Jamison joined the company in 1965 and was most famous for dancing Cry, Ailey’s tribute to African American women. "I hope I'm a continuation of Alvin's vision. He has left me a road map. It's very clear. It works,” Jamison writes in her autobiography, Dancing Spirit.

Just because the company bears Ailey’s name doesn’t mean audiences are going to see a whole evening of Ailey’s choreography. His mission went beyond presenting his own work. From the very beginning, Ailey nurtured the talent around him. Works by outstanding African American choreographers Donald Mac, Talley Beatty, Eleo Pomare, and Geoffrey Holder were in the early repertory. The stewarding of the next generation of choreographers continues under Jamison’s direction through the Ailey New Choreography Initiative.

Today, an artistic team searches for the right mix of new choreographers that will challenge this uber-capable group of dancers. Ronald K. Brown, one of the most celebrated new artists of the decade, is one such choreographer. His work, Ife/My Heart (which means "my heart, the way God loves me" in Yoruba), delves into the territory of spiritual redemption, and contains both a feeling of tribute and resonance with Revelations. Brown is marvelously adept at using the mighty talents of the Ailey dancers. The New York Times identified him as “one of the few choreographers that’s rethinking what dance can do.”

Jamison has also blossomed into a choreographer of note. Love Stories is collaboration with Modern dance wonder Robert Battle and Hip-Hop renegade Rennie Harris, set to music by Stevie Wonder. The piece was inspired by the idea of “Sankofa” the Akan word which means “go back” (Sanko) and “take” (fa). The concept means that we don’t know where we are going until we know where we have been. “Love Stories is about whatever a dancer gets from being in a studio alone in front of a mirror…the solitude of that place,” says Jamison. “It’s about trying to be as honest with oneself as possible. That is what Alvin was always about….bringing us to our true selves.”

Also on the program is David Parson’s signature strobe-lit solo, Caught, a perennial audience favorite. Even if you are allergic to modern dance you will find something to love in Parson’s frozen-in-midair antics. “Everybody on the planet has dreamt of flying,” Parsons says. “And it’s an incredible thing to stumble upon as an artist…to realize when you ask that question, you can’t find anybody who hasn’t dreamt of flying.”

The star system has not gone out of fashion at Ailey At the moment, Alicia J. Graf, formerly of Dance Theater of Harlem, is garnering attention from audiences and the press. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood, a ten-year veteran, is another dancer making waves with her rendition of Cry. “It’s a ballet that carries so much history and meaning,” says Smallwood. “I haven’t lived enough to really tell that story but I try my best.”

Ailey dancers, known for their uncanny versatility and strength, are trained in Horton technique. Ailey is famous for calling Horton a “modern tops and ballet bottoms” approach. The lower body is strong and angular while the upper body remains totally expressive. Revelations draws from the Horton techniques in its choreographic language.

The New York Times reports the company has been seen by an estimated 21,000,000 fans in 48 states and 68 countries in six continents. Today the company tours 16 weeks a year nationally and internationally. In 2004, the company moved into their permanent Manhattan home, the Joan Weill Center for Dance, a state-of-the-art training center and company base. With its glamorous new home, a team of the finest dancers and an ever-evolving repertory, the legacy of Alvin Ailey remains secure.

Houston audiences will get a chance to see what all the hoopla is all about because Revelations closes every show. “The ballet has a life of its own. Sometimes I think, Oh Lord, you really want me to dance this ballet again?” says Smallwood. “Then the music comes on and my heart opens up.”

Reprinted from Artshouston

SPA presents Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on February 17-19 at Jones Hall. Call 713-222-4SPA or visit