I was 22 the last time I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
perform Revelations, Ailey’s most famous and critically acclaimed work. I remember being stunned by the emotional choreography and the skill and expressiveness of the dancers.
Today, 15 years later, I had the chance to revisit Alvin Ailey and Revelations at the Spoleto Festival
, and I’m happy to report that the company astounded me once again.
Revelations was born out of Alvin Ailey’s “blood memories” of Texas. Set to African-American spirituals, blues and gospel, the dance explores African-American heritage, a history that Ailey called “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful,” a spectrum of emotions that is definitely alive in this memorable piece of dance.
Another notable piece in today’s program was Home, a dance that couldn’t (at least on the surface) be more different than Revelations. This piece by Rennie Harris, inspired by the lives of people living with or affected by HIV, fuses modern dance with hip hop. The dancers perform not in leotards, but in the clothes of the everyday people they portray: ripped jeans, Converse sneakers, midriff revealing tank tops, T-shirts, gold jewelry. The effect of the simple costume choice is remarkable; the dancers, for all of their impressive virtuosity, seem all the more human and accessible, as if they could be one of us.
It’s hard to describe what sets the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater apart from other companies. Certainly part of it is its mission to “celebrate the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience.” The company certainly does that and does that well – a Congressional resolution declared the company “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world.”
But more than that, Alvin Ailey is dedicated to preserving and enriching American modern dance. The repertory not only includes Ailey’s work but the work of American greats like Paul Taylor. New pieces, many by current Artistic Director Robert Battle, push the boundaries of modern dance, adding new rhythms, moves and motion to the dance lexicon.
Then there are the dancers. I feel like you can spot an Alvin Ailey dancer instantly. Their dance seems to be a pure expression of the immense strength of the human body and spirit. Compared with the world of traditional ballet, which seems to be inhabited by princesses, fairies and swans, Ailey’s dancers are undeniably human. But there is something vital, alive and fascinating about the dancers that is even more miraculous than a sugarplum doing a pirouette.
There aren't any other performances by the group at Spoleto this year, but you can learn more about the company at www.alvinailey.org