Alvin Ailey: Beyond Dance

Every spring UC Berkeley hosts Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the premier dance companies in the world, and this season marks the 50th Anniversary of the company. My introduction to Alvin Ailey was six years ago, and it was an eye-opening experience. The highlight of the performance was a rendition of David Parson’s Caught, one of the most visually stunning and physically remarkable dance pieces I have ever seen. With the lights all down, a single dancer appears “caught” in midair as a spotlight briefly flashes on him or her every second. I could not find an Ailey version of the piece on YouTube, but watch the link above anyway to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

Yesterday I had the great privilege of seeing the group perform for a second time, and this most recent performance again highlighted the visceral athleticism of Ailey’s dance troupe. What struck me more than the powerful grace of the dancers, however, was the prominence of the show’s musical soundtrack. Music and dance are typically interwoven, and most dances are accompanied in some manner or another. But with this Ailey show, several of the dance pieces felt literally as if they were extensions of the music, perhaps born from it. I am thinking specifically of a piece in the program entitled “Revelations,” performed in 1960 as one of Alvin Ailey’s first-ever professional works.

Revelations is more than a dance. It is the act of representing a cultural and historical identity on stage. As the great Judith Jamison says, Revelations at its very core attempts to describe “what it means to be human.” A bold statement, but on the one hand Jamison rings true. The dance describes a human experience, the adversities of that experience, the communities forged to withstand adversity, and the unwavering faith required to overcome a harsh world. These aspects of our existence permeate all human societies across space and time. Revelations, however, does not illustrate generally what it means to be human, it illustrates a particular narrative of the black experience in the United States. But this blog is not exactly a forum for socio-cultural analyses, and thus I digress.

Three distinct sections comprise the narrative of Revelations, each telling a different story. Infused in the entire work is an inseparable musical soundtrack. Indeed, as I was watching I felt as if Mr. Ailey had started with the music and then choreographed a dance to essentially act out the feelings and stories within that music. Imagine if you took spirituals and gospels and converted them into physical movements and visual expressions, and you will understand Revelations. It was truly amazing to witness. I have never seen a dance before that literally acted out the music accompanying it. What I enjoyed most was this message Revelations conveyed – that music extends to the very core of who we are. Music defines us. It explains us. And not only explains us, it has the power to transform who we are.

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