Saturday, May 18, 2013

Alvin Ailey's Revelations

Alvin Ailey's Revelations, created in 1960, is the most seen modern dance work - over 23 million people have seen it live. Here is a guide to one of contemporary dance's classics.

Choreography: Alvin Ailey
Performed by18 dancers (9 male, 9 female)
Duration: 38 minutes
Original décor and costumes: Lawrence Maldonado
Revival décor and costumes: Ves Harper
Lighting: Nicola Cernovitch 
First performance: 31 January 1960 at Kaufman Concert Hall, YM-YWHM, New York
Original dancers (the first version of Revelations featured fewer dancers than today's): Alvin Ailey, Joan Derby, Merle Derby, Jay Fletcher, Gene Hobgood, Natheniel Horne, Herman Howell, Minnie Marshall, Nancy Redi and Corene Richardson.

 © Andrew Eccles

Alvin Ailey, circa 1955 - credit Carl Van Vechten

Ailey biography
Alvin Ailey is one of the most important African American choreographers ever, and one of the major figures of contemporary dance of the 20th century. He was born in Rogers, in then-segregated Texas ('I grew up in a country that was intensely racist' he said), in 1931. His childhood experiences there majorly shaped his politics (he felt huge pride in being black) and his art  (and his piece Revelations in particular, see below). His father abandoned him and his mother when Ailey was only six months old.

He lived in Texas until the age of 12, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother, where he attended performances by Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which featured black dancers. In high school, as fate would have it, he befriended Carmen de Lavallade, who went on to become one of the major African American dancers of the 50s and 60s. She introduced him to dance and took him to classes led by Lester Horton - another turning point in Ailey's development as an artist.

Firstly, Horton's dance technique would become a foundation of the Ailey dance style (see below), and secondly, Horton had set up the first racially-integrated dance company in the US. Horton became Ailey's mentor until his death in 1953, when Ailey took over the directorship of the company Lester Horton Dance Theater for a few months.

In 1954, he moved to New York to perform in House of Flowers, the Broadway musical about two competing bordellos in the West Indies. Based on Truman Capote's short story, it had lyrics by Capote himself, a score mixing blues, calypso and dance rhythms and starred famous actress Pearl Bailey. After it received negative reviews and ended its five-month run in May 1955, Ailey performed in other shows, as actor and dancer, including Jamaica, the Broadway debut of famous African American MGM actress Lena Horne. Rubbing shoulders with Horne, who pushed for racial integration in the technical team and orchestra, and encouraged dancers to create their own choreography, also proved influential.

It was during the run of Jamaica, in 1958, that Ailey set up his own dance company and presented its first performances. Ailey performed in the first pieces and danced until 1965, when he focused on choreography. The company would go on to become one of the best known dance companies around the globe.

Poster of first Alvin Ailey company performance, 1958

The Revelations story
The original version of Revelations, which premiered on 31 January 1960, featured a smaller cast of seven and more sections. Ailey then refined it from 65 minutes to the version we know today, which lasts 38 minutes. Amongst the changes, songs were cut (Weeping Mary, Round About the Mountain), the solo I  Wanna Be Ready was added and Rocka My Soul became the finale.

The premiere was a big success. Dancer Dorene Richardson recalls that ' when the piece was over and the curtain came down, there was dead silence, no applause (...). But when the curtain came up, it was thunderous, unbelievable. They wouldn't let us go.' and Carmen de Lavallade said that 'it was magnificent and just tore the place apart. People were jumping all over the place.'

In the first New York Times review of the piece, published on 23 July 1962, critic Allen Hughes wrote 'In Revelations there are pleading, struggle, protest, pathos, humor and much more. Some of these qualities are expressed in magnificent solos by Mr Ailey and James Truitte; others are given to the entire group. All were communicated on this occasion with stunning directness and intensity.'

Revelations became Ailey's calling card, and got the company chosen to go on international tours sponsored by the US State department in 1962 (Australia and Asia) and 1970 (North Africa, Europe and the USSR, where they received a 20min curtain call at Moscow's Variety Theatre).

(This article in the LA Times features heaps of quotes and memories from Ailey dancers, friends and family, some of which are quoted above)

Ailey's dance style
Ailey's first dance classes were with Lester Horton, and his dance style evolved from this.

The Horton technique brought together Native American folk dance, 'Japanese arm gestures, Javanese and Balinese isolations for the upper body, particularly for the eyes, head and hands, plus Afro-Caribbean elements like hip circles' (Ballet Dancers Guide). It has a particularly earthy, grounded feel, but takes on the whole body, helping develop flexibility and strength, and enabling great freedom of expression.

While based on this technique, Ailey's choreography is more free, as he added jazz and social dancing elements to the mix, and of course ballet, which can be seen in the particularly long extensions required in his dances.

For Revelations, Ailey also did research by attending church services in Harlem to get movement inspiration.

Ailey's philosophy
The first goal of Ailey's artistic practice was to portray African American stories in a positive light. Katherine Dunham (1919-2006) was the first dancer/choreographer to organize a dance company for African-American artists and to seriously explore African-American folklore. Her company performed her highly successful blend of folk material, ballet and modern dance throughout the United States and Europe, and she was an inspiration to Ailey: 'It was not until the Dunham Company came through that I realised that black people could do this kind of thing, that Black material, from Africa, from the Carribean, from America itself could be presented with elegance and style and class, and could say something about our history.'

The second aim is simplicity and a willingness to reach out: 'one of the promises of my company is that its repertoire will include pieces that ordinary people can understand… That’s my perception of what dance should be – a popular form wrenched from the elite.'

Music and Themes
Revelations, whose title comes from the Bible, celebrates the beauty of black people, their pride, strength and strong spirit. It depicts the African American experience, and particularly that of the rural South, Ailey's memories of his childhood, his gospel roots. 'The first dances that I made are what I like to call blood memories', he said. 

The soundtrack consists of traditional blues, work songs, ragtime music and spirituals Ailey had heard during his childhood in Texas, 'anthems to the musical spirit' of African Americans. Here is an excerpt from his biography:

'Revelations began with the music. As early as I can remember I was enthralled by the music played and sung in the small black churches in every small Texas town my mother and I lived in.  No matter where we were during those nomadic years Sunday was always a churchgoing day.  There we would absorb some of the most glorious singing to be heard anywhere in the world.

In Rogers there was also a church where the gospel was preached. It was the center of my community. The church was always very important, very theatrical, very intense. The life that went on there and the music made a great impression on me. At a church in Cameron, when I was about nine, I watched a procession of people, all in white, going down to a lake. The minister was baptizing everybody as the choir sang Wade in the Water.  After baptism we went into church where the minister’s wife was singing a soulful version of I’ve Been ‘Buked, I’ve Been Scorned. The ladies had fans that they fluttered while talking and singing.  All of this is in my ballet Revelations.'

A feature of gospel music is that it invites physical particpation by the congregation. Famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson said: 'I want my hands... my feet... my whole body to say all that is in me. I say "Don't let the devil steal the beat from the Lord!". The Lord doesn't like us to act dead. If you feel it, tap your feet a little - dance to the glory of the Lord'.

The track listing (available on itunes) is
I Been 'Buked
Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel
Fix Me, Jesus
Honor, Honor
Wade in the Water
I Wanna Be Ready
Sinner Man
The Day Is Past and Gone
You May Run On
Rocka My Soul In The Bosom of Abraham

Revelations is divided into three sections.

The opening, Pilgrims of Sorrow, is about the burden of life, oppression and aspiration for freedom. It begins with a group of nine dancers (six female, three male), standing under a spotlight and moving to I Been Buked. The dancers often reach out towards the light, arms extended, trying to  touch something they cannot grasp. The trio to Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel features lots of kneeling on the floor, and clinched fists in the air. To the tune of Fix Me Jesus, a male and female dancer symbolise the relationship between a pastor (him) and his flock (her). As she searched for answers, he lifts her towards the light.

The second section is called Take Me to the Water, and is about baptism, the kind we read Ailey describe above. Processional sees seven dancers dressed in white walk on stage, carrying umbrellas and props representing tree branches. Blue cloths are unfolded and shaken, creating waves. Three dancers Wade in the Water, before a couple performs a series of steps (big jumps, floor work) in unison. A motif throughout this section is that of a ripple going through the body, starting from the shoulders and going through the spine and arms. As the water washes them, the force of the Lord seems to enter their body.

The powerful male solo I Wanna Be Ready follows. Sitting under a spotlight, a dancer looks up and reaches out with his arms and feet. Standing up, he slowly kneels down, while his upper body stretches backwards. A slowly rising arabesque is one of the most obvious use of balances in a piece that includes many. Dudley Williams performed with Ailey's company for many years from 1964, and I Wanna Be Ready was one of his signature role: 'It was a terror and a challenge: all those balances and no place to stop until the very end. Jimmy Truitte put it together as a Lester Horton study, and Alvin approved it. The weight in it comes from someone always pushing you down, Mr Truitte told me. From the very first movement, you try to get out of the muck that you're in. It's a struggle to keep alive, and you give it up at the very end.'

There is a big change of pace with the dance that follows, Sinner Man. Three bare chested men run, jump and seem to fight in a bid to escape their fate in an energetic and fast-paced section.

Revelations ends with Move Members Move, an uplifting section where a Sunday service leads the believers to celebrate the Lord through dance. Nine women come in to The Day is Past and Gone. They wear hats, yellow dresses and carry fans and stools. They appear to feel hot, a hand resting on their back, as if exhausted by the early morning heat. Men in their Sunday best (black trousers, waistcoats) join them, to be humorously reprimanded. Celebrations go full swing to Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham: there is clapping, little jumps, posing, flapping dresses and more, conveying a joyous collective experience. The final movement sees once again the dancers kneel down on the floor, this time arms up in gratitude and happiness.

From its opening (see above), Revelations has struck a chord with audiences, and been enjoyed by millions. 

For people of African descent around the world, it has given them the opportunity to see their roots combined with Western dance traditions, their bodies and customs celebrated, their pain, hope and stories told. These human emotions are obviously universal and Revelations is extremely successful in sharing them.

One could argue that Revelations has not solely had a positive impact on its creator: how do you move forward when everything you will create after will be compared with the masterpiece you choreographed early in your career? Over 50 years on, his company still finishes its programmes with Revelations, which can taint what has been seen earlier that evening, as other works often pale in comparison.

What was its impact on contemporary dance? Positive for sure, with such a large number of people seeing a work that, though it is full of extensions and arabesques, is not in the traditional ballet mold  As some corners of contemporary dance have moved towards abstraction and high-browness, it is also a reminder that the artform does not have to push itself into a corner and can strike a chord with a wide range of people.

Fun facts
There is Revelations Barbie doll.
In 2011, the US senate passed a special resolution honouring Revelations as a 'timeless classic beloved by people around the world', with universal themes 'that illustrate the strength and humanity within all of us.'

50 years in pictures: a historical timeline of Revelations, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre website [link]
92Y flashback: 1960 and the premiere of Alvin Ailey's Revelations [link]
Alvin Ailey: Wikipedia entry [link]
Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham interview (video) [link]
Carmen de Lavallade: Knowing Alvin Ailey (video) [link]
Celebrating Revelations at 50 (video) [link]
Dancing in the Street - a history of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Judith Jamison: Early Days with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (video) [link]
Dancing Spiri: An Autobiography, by Judith Jamison
Move by the Spirit: Celebrating Revelations at 50, New York Times [link]
Nicola Cernovitch: Alvin Ailey Light Plot Concepts, The Lighting Archives [link]
Revelations (Alvin Ailey): Wikipedia entry [link]
Revelations revealed, Los Angeles Times [link]
Revelations teachers' guide, Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University [link - Word doc download]
Step by step guide to dance: Alvin Ailey, The Guardian [link]
Why Ailey Wasn't Blinded by the Broadway Lights, New York Times (extracts from Jennifer Dunning's Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance) [link]

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