Ailey's 'Revelations': In Step With Its Times, and Ours

Alvin Ailey, Ella Thompson and Myrna White in
Alvin Ailey, Ella Thompson and Myrna White in "Revelations," circa 1960. (Ailey Archives)
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By Robin Givhan
Sunday, August 10, 2008

No matter how many times the dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform "Revelations," it evokes tears with its blend of grace and spiritual rapture.

The signature work of America's premiere African American dance company was choreographed by Ailey in 1960, two years after the company's founding, and it combines the optimism, timelessness and African American cultural resonance that define so much of his work. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the modern dance company, and it is celebrating the milestone with free performances throughout its home base of New York, a five-week engagement in New York beginning in December, international and U.S. tours -- with a stop at the Kennedy Center Feb. 3-8 -- and even a Barbie doll inspired by a dancer from "Revelations."

The anniversary is also an occasion for new choreography. One assumes the fresh movement will be a welcome respite for dancers who must occasionally tire of performing the 32 inspiring minutes of "Revelations," which includes the spirituals "Wade in the Water" and "Rock-a My Soul."

Each song serves as accompaniment to a portion of "Revelations," which ranges from a minimalist pas de deux to a rousing full-ensemble celebration. During "Wade in the Water" -- a coded paean to the abolitionists -- the female dancers in long white dresses spin and flutter their arms with the fluidity of waves and the men in white pants move with the grace and potency of a stormy sea. "Rock-a My Soul" propels the dancers through a section in which the passions of a church revival merge with the physical honesty of modern dance.

In watching "Revelations" over the years, it has never failed to be both moving and relevant. It's not necessary to be a dance expert to appreciate its power -- although having that expertise would surely alter the experience, perhaps allowing a performance to speak to the head as profoundly as it speaks to the heart. It's not even necessary to be a regular viewer of television's reality dance competitions. When Alvin Ailey dancers performed a portion of "Revelations" on "So You Think You Can Dance," no one needed Mary Murphy screaming about a "hot tamale train" to recognize passion in the performers.

Despite the historical nature of some of the costumes -- the long white dresses, the parasols and the picture hats -- it never seems as though "Revelations" is a relic from the past. The dancers cooling themselves furiously with their hand-held paper fans during "Rock-a My Soul" could just as easily have been borrowed from last week's church service. In its references to African American culture, it captures the past and the present and the echoes between the two.

At times, "Revelations" is reminiscent of the Ellis Wilson painting "Funeral Procession," from the 1950s. The work was made famous by "The Cosby Show" of the 1980s, in which it was featured as part of a plotline and afterward hung in the fictional Cosby living room as a statement of cultural awareness. So much of "Revelations" is about the ritual of processionals and the idea of moving forward toward some goal in a mindful manner. It speaks to the idea of marching toward grace in the same way that Romare Bearden's 1967 "Palm Sunday Procession" captures that sense of hope and redemption. It is as allegorical as a contemporary Kara Walker mural, but without the accompanying acrimony. It is personal without being political, powerful but not strident. "Revelations" is sacred, but not sanctimonious.

The dance is rooted in black culture, specifically the church and the role it plays as a source of spiritual counsel as well as social support. But it isn't limited to that audience. That may be one reason why it never feels dated. Doesn't every generation -- no matter the race or ethnicity -- need solace and uplift?

When Ailey created "Revelations," it was before the massive political shifts of the civil rights movement. It was before the youthquake and the cultural transformation of the '60s. It came out of an era when traditions were bumping up against the beginnings of change. The religiosity of the piece is offered without irony or skepticism, but with gratitude.

Ailey didn't just create a snapshot of that period. He captured the roiling feelings of discontent, the urgency and the optimism -- as the music shifts from the soulfulness of spirituals to the rollicking beat of gospel, and the dancers movements evoke images from classical ballet to traditional African expressions.

"Revelations" is about change. It's about a constant unmasking, an unending education. Can there be a more timely topic than change and what that means?

Ailey was only 58 when he died in 1989 and star dancer Judith Jamison took over as artistic director. Ailey considered "Revelations" a complete work, but it has an open-ended quality. In its performance, in its shifts from slave spirituals to gospel, to its more recent performances with live music in which the gospel has been tinged with rock, "Revelations" continues to subtly evolve. It remains open, for instance, to a coda influenced by the best of hip-hop and the music's veiled expressions of outrage and calls for justice. Even though that was never part of the original choreography, it could be accommodated because it is part of the continuum on which "Revelations" is built.

Almost a half-century later, a performance of "Revelations" can still make a person cry -- for the same old reasons, as well as entirely new ones.

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