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Alvin Ailey is an American dancer and choreographer, the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, who made a significant contribution to the popularization of modern dance and the emergence of black dancers on the dance scene of the XX century. He once said that one of America’s greatest treasures was African-American culture: “bitter, gleeful, but always hopeful” (Gray 37). The classical ballet “Revelations” is a tribute to this culture and a tribute to the memory of Ailey’s genius.
This performance staged to traditional African-American music in the spiritual style embodies the deep sorrow and light joy of the human soul. This masterpiece of choreographic art crowned the long way of the ascent of the Theater to the big stage. The modern Ailey’s dancers carefully carried the heritage of their teacher through the years to remind society of his way of showing the difficult history of his people.
Born in Rogers, Texas, on January 5, 1931, he was the only child of working-class parents who divorced when Alvin Ailey was two years old. In 1942, he moved with his mother to Los Angeles (Gray 35). Timid and shy by nature, Ailey suddenly begins to dance on the advice of a classmate from high school, who brought him to Lester Horton’s Hollywood studio in 1949 (Waters 31). Ailey immersed himself in the learning and development of his dance style suitable to him because of his athletic build.
In 1954, he moved to New York with his partner Carmen De Lavallade to participate in the Broadway play “House of Flowers” (Waters 32). Successful performances and training from outstanding choreographers and dancers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Karel Shook led Alvin Ailey to the establishment of his dance and theatre company.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater began as a repertory company consisting of 7 dancers. The rave reviews of critics about the first concerts of the company in 1958-1960 marked the beginning of a new era in dance performances dedicated to the African-American theme (Waters 33). The premiere performance of “Revelations” immediately glorified the dance company of Alvin Ailey as the first interpreter of the African-American experience. Taking as a musical basis a series of selected spirituals and gospels, crafted by Brother John Sellers, “Revelations” portrayed a series of Black religious rites. Thus, “the dance develops in tandem with the spiritual” (DeFrantz 6).
It includes a group prayer (“I’ve Been Buked”), a ritual baptism ceremony (“Wade in the Water”), and a sacrament moment (“I Wanna Be Ready”). Then the performance portraits a duet of trust and support for the priest and parishioner (“Fix Me, Jesus”), and the solemn singing of the gospel (“Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham”).
An active study of the history of dance, the diverse repertoire of the company built a substantial part of Ailey’s dancers unique style. According to Ailey, it served as “an impetus to save modern dance, to understand where it came from and how it will develop, and to encourage the participation of the viewer in this process” (qt. in Topaz 18). The eclectic repertoire is represented by choreographers working in various dance styles, including ballet, jazz dance, modern, and Graham, Horton, and Dunham techniques (Foulkes 181-182).
Ailey “focused on the theme of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and opportunity in his choreography,” and moreover, “his company cemented the small triumphs in the changing social composition of dance” (Foulkes 182). He encouraged his dancers to give personality-filled and highly emotional performances, which is a strategy that created the first-magnitude dance stars in American contemporary dance.
Ailey created his Theater to represent the talents of his African-American counterparts, though the company never consisted exclusively of Black dancers. Ailey commented on the essence of his company: “We try to create a whole range of sensations, both for dancers and the audience” (Truitt 12). These words emphasize modesty and honesty in everything this man did for choreography. For many years, the Ailey troupe has been giving indescribable emotions not only to Black people but also to representatives of all races and nationalities.
Ailey’s contribution to world culture is that he was able to show the beauty and depth of the black artist’s dance to the world, giving pride and inspiration to the heart of every African American. Ailey’s legacy for the dance world is the freedom to choose between ballet, jazz dance, and social dance to maximize the expressiveness of a person’s essence in the movement needed for a suitable theatrical moment. Consequently, a positive image of African Americans, their bodies and souls, is created.
“Revelations” significantly resonates with me and my vision of the African American culture is based on deep spirituality, and the power of African American spirit and will is reflected in the movements of dancers on the stage. While recreating my own “Revelations” as a dance and revelations as the spiritual breakthrough, I should focus on the beginning of this dance. When a group of dancers stands with their arms spread and heads downward seeming to be ready to fly despite being suppressed, I feel both the dancers and audience will start their spiritual voyage.
My own revelation is that each person, in spite of his or her race and life situation, has the right to freedom and the chance. Observing this dance, I can learn more about the African American’s cultural heritage focusing on gospel songs and see these people’s desire to be free represented in their impressive movements. Therefore, my own dance to claim spirituality would have the similar amplitude in movements as Ailey’s dancers had, and faces should be directed upward to accentuate the path for the thought.
DeFrantz, Thomas F. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Foulkes, Julia L. Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
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Gray, Allan S. “Life With Alvin: A Kansas City Story.” Alvin Ailey: An American Visionary, edited by Muriel Topaz. Routledge, 2018, pp. 35-40.
Topaz, Muriel. “An Inside View of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.” Alvin Ailey: An American Visionary, edited by Muriel Topaz. Routledge, 2018, pp. 13-20.
Truitte, James. “Dear Alvin.” Alvin Ailey: An American Visionary, edited by Muriel Topaz. Routledge, 2018, pp. 9-12.
Waters, Sylvia. “Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble.” Alvin Ailey: An American Visionary, edited by Muriel Topaz. Routledge, 2018, pp. 29-34.