The first time I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform I was 11-years-old, my parents had taken me to Symphony Hall in Newark, NJ. Watching these powerful, magnificent performers’ radiate boundless energy and emotion left a distinct imprint on my brain cells that still remain. Viewing Revelations, Ailey’s most recognized ballet, scratched my soul. It spoke about the Black experience in a way that I had never witnessed before or after. It spoke about my parents’ and grandparents’ experience. It spoke about me, the legacy of triumph and struggle that I had inherited from past generations and would be responsible to pass on to the generation that followed me. It spoke about my Sundays spent in church, the ability of a people to build a history without a full comprehension of where they came from and the sense of pride we carried throughout our journey. After seeing Revelations, no one can walk out of the theater and not know what it feels like to be Black in America; it touches every fiber of the Black experience and can still make tears swell in my eyes. The exquisite beauty of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s dancers and choreography still beckon to me. As an adult I make sure to make a pilgrimage to what I consider to be the dancing Mecca of the world at least once a year.
The roots Ailey planted when he first formed the company in 1958 have extended to touch the hearts and souls of citizens around the globe. It is no wonder the company is called the “Cultural Ambassador to the World.” There is one reason why Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has sustained such a high level of accolades and success, they are artistry of movement set to music personified. Revelations and all of the works that Ailey and others have choreographed for the company are rich in spirit, motion, music and drama. After Alvin Ailey’s untimely death in 1989, Judith Jamison became the Artistic Director. For me, Judith Jamison was the epitome of a female dancer. Her long, liquescent limbs made me pray (to no avail) for longer legs. She brought a sense of regality with her on stage, a presence that still can be seen today. Watching footage of her performing Cry will provoke the action to fall from your eyes. “Cry is a dance for all black women everywhere, especially our mothers. Dancing Cry, I was to be a woman who did the most servile of work but was never defeated by it. I didn’t even know about the special dedication until he (Alvin) showed me the program the night of my first Cry performance,” Ms. Jamison noted. “It took eight days for Alvin to choreograph it. I learned Cry in sections and Alvin gave me images of powerful women to use to express his vision. When performing Cry, you have to dig down deep, be venerable, use your dignity and of course passion! Looking back, Alvin gave me this dance and it’s a priceless gift. I’ll always have it, along with the wisdom he passed down to me and that I pass down to women who perform Cry now.”
Judith Jamison’s tenacity for preserving Alvin Ailey’s vision is one of the reasons why Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the most beloved modern dance companies ever – an unyielding force of nature. When asked her feelings regarding AAADT’s 50th anniversary in 2008, Ms. Jamison stated. “We’re living in his resonance, and in his vision that dance is for the people and should be delivered back to the people. We’ve performed worldwide and brought in many spectacular choreographers. For 50 years we’ve grown and expanded his goal. Ailey II, The Ailey School, Ailey extension, and Arts in Education program are just a few examples of how AAADT has achieved Alvin’s goal. Alvin Ailey will always be the root of this magnificent tree and his spirit will always be living through it.”
The 2010-2011 season for AAADT is bittersweet, this is Judith Jamison’s final year as Artistic Director as well as the 50th anniversary for Revelations. In April, Ms. Jamison announced her retirement and named Robert Battle as her successor. Currently he serves as Artistic Director Designate with Ms. Jamison until she assumes Emerita status on July, 1 2011. In a press release Judith Jamison stated, “Robert has his own company and is a maverick in his choreography. He’s edgy and forward‐thinking, very talented and savvy—a lovely, intelligent person who in many ways reminds me of Alvin. He also has a worldview and is capable of taking this company in new directions, while at the same time understanding our traditions. Choosing Robert Battle is the giant leap I want to take to ensure that this company stays vibrant in the future.” One of those traditions will be performing Revelations. Each time I see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform I wait with bated breath until the curtain rises and “Pilgrim of Sorrow” begins. I exhale and inhale this brilliant work, but I know that I am not the only one in the audience doing this. Although Revelations speaks to the Black experience, there is a cord running throughout the piece that everyone can connect to. Everyone knows what it is like to feel down-trodden and experience pain, yet somehow transcend the tribulation and still project pride and exuberance. When asked about Revelations universal appeal and longevity Ms. Jamison said, “The dancers have fully given themselves to this piece and I believe audiences can see and feel that, and that in itself touches them. We all want to leave the theater, being touched, inspired, or feeling something. Revelations always closes Ailey performances and audiences always leave the performances with more than just smile, they leave with their spirits raised.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will end their season with five weeks of performances at the New York City Center. The company is pulling out all the stops with three premieres, Anointed (choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins), The Hunt (choreographed by Robert Battle) and The Evolution of a Secured Feminine (choreographed by Camille A. Brown) as well as new productions of Cry, Three Black Kings and Mary Lou’s Mass, all originally choreographed by Ailey. From December 15 through December 19 Winton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will join AAADT. Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock will join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in a special rendition of Revelations on New Year’s Eve. Celebrating Judith Jamison on January 2 will be their season finale.
On December 2, Target and AAADT gave New Yorkers an early holiday gift by reducing the ticket price to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Revelations. The vibe in the audience exuded the atmosphere of church – everyone knew someone and some came in groups. The air of family carried on stage as the dancers performed Matthew Rushing’s Uptown – a pulsating multi-media extravaganza that celebrates the Harlem Renaissance in its entirety, Ronald K. Brown’s Dancing Spirit – a must-see for anyone who has the soul of a dancer and Revelations. As I sat in the audience, I did not feel as though I was looking at a group of performers, instead I felt like I was watching members of my own family cut up at a gathering. I also felt the presence of Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison. While these talented disciples of Ailey’s dance style continue to entertain and inspire, his spirit is there looming like a proud father watching his child grow up to do great things. I look forward to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s future with Robert Battle at the helm and am positive that he will continue what I believe is AAADT’s true legacy – producing art at its highest caliber.
Photos: AAADT in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations by Paul Kolnik, Judith Jamison by Max Waldman and Andrew Eccles, Judith Jamison and Robert Battle by Andrew Eccles, AAADT in Robert Battle’s The Hunt by Paul Kolnik, AAADT in Ronald K. Brown’s Dancing Spirit by Christopher Duggan