Alvin Ailey made me a dance critic. To be precise, it was a singular moment in the second act of Ailey’s signature work “Revelations” that galvanized me.
In college, studying modern dance only because it satisfied a phys ed requirement, I trudged unhappily behind my classmates to an Ailey company concert we were required to see. We had the worst seats in the house, spread across the last row of a large auditorium. No matter. Ailey's big bold movements, appealing patterns, and charismatic dancers reached just fine into the back row. I sat up straight, enthralled with the absorbing stories his dances told. (The Celebrity Series of Boston presents The Ailey troupe at the Citi Wang Theatre, March 26-29.)
What punched my core so powerfully was the middle section of “Revelations.” To the joyful beat of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” a white ruffled umbrella floats onto the stage, held high by the magnificent Judith Jamison (her gorgeous role has now passed on to other leading dancers). The ensemble surrounds her, the dancers leaping and spinning their way through waving blue ribbons representing baptismal waters. The scene is a stunner the first time you see it, and hardly less so with repetition.
Several thoughts hit me at the same time: "What a marvel, I have to be here," but "I'm never going to be a professional dancer," and "I can't afford tickets, so how can I be here?"
I had just begun writing for the college newspaper, and the solution jumped at me: write about it, and you can be there.
So I started reviewing dance, going to every available performance by any kind of dance group — modern, ballet, ethnic, whatever came to town. It was glorious. It was never my day job, which probably increased my love of the art.
As for the continuing effect of Ailey’s stunning and theatrical signature piece, you can multiply my little story countless times over. The troupe has been seen live by some 25 million people in 71 countries on six continents, and the riveting, dramatic, and jubilant “Revelations” has been seen by more people than any other modern dance work.
When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the Citi Wang Theatre, six works will debut in Boston and “Revelations” will be on four of the five programs.
Ailey was 29 when he created “Revelations” in 1960. He’d performed with Lester Horton’s company, and, at 22, when Horton died, Ailey stepped in to run the company. He had danced on Broadway (in 1954, with partner Carmen de Lavallade, in Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's "House of Flowers," as well as “Sing, Man, Sing” in 1956 and “Jamaica” in 1957) and studied the high priests of early modern dance: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, and Charles Weidman. But Ailey’s ambition was to create his own troupe, bringing together dancers of all races, training, and background. In 1958 he made that happen, with the company’s debut performance in March 1958, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
His choreography broke the mold for modern dance, incorporating jazz and blues and the African-American experience in audience-pleasing, theatrical works that raised some eyebrows in the spare and earnest world of modern dance. But Ailey was earnest as well, aspiring to present along with his own impressive collection of works, the major pioneering modern dance pieces by Ted Shawn (founder of Jacob’s Pillow Dance), Katherine Dunham, and Pearl Primus. Over the years, the company added works by many of the bright lights of the dance world – Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, and later generations of dance makers including Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, and Elisa Monte.
Ailey was just 58 when he died 25 years ago, leaving the wealth of his own art — 79 pieces — and the treasure he’d mined for his company, dances by some of the finest choreographers of the 20th century. Judith Jamison succeeded the founder, directing the Ailey company for the next 21 years. Since 2011, Robert Battle has led the troupe. The repertoire continues to expand: today, the Ailey company boasts some 235 works by more than 90 choreographers.
All the performances at the Citi Wang Center will include pieces that are new to Boston. The 2014 ballet “Odetta” by Matthew Rushing celebrates activist Odetta Holmes, a voice of the Civil Rights Movement, the woman whom Martin Luther King Jr. called “the queen of American folk music.”
Other Boston premieres: another 2014 piece, “The Pleasure of the Lesson” by Robert Moses; Hofesh Shechter’s 2006 work, “Uprising”; Asadata Dafora’s African warrior solo from 1932, “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich”; Christopher Wheeldon’s 2005 ballet, “After the Rain Pas de Deux”; and a new production of Ulysses Dove’s forceful, unsentimental 1984 work, “Bad Blood.”
Sharon Basco is a journalist, critic, and public radio producer.
Programs by performance:
- Thursday, March 26ODETTA* (Matthew Rushing, 2014)Uprising^ (Hofesh Shechter, 2006)Revelations (Alvin Ailey, 1960)
- Friday, March 27Night Creature (Alvin Ailey, 1974)Awassa Astrige/Ostrich^ (Asadata Dafora 1932)Bad Blood (Ulysses Dove, 1984, new production)After the Rain Pas de Deux^ (Christopher Wheeldon, 2005)Revelations (Alvin Ailey, 1960)
- Saturday, March 28, 2 p.m.Night Creature (Alvin Ailey, 1974)Awassa Astrige/Ostrich^ (Asadata Dafora 1932)Bad Blood (Ulysses Dove, 1984, new production)After the Rain Pas de Deux^ (Christopher Wheeldon, 2005)Revelations (Alvin Ailey, 1960)
- Saturday, March 28, 8 p.m.Uprising^ (Hofesh Shechter, 2006)Bad Blood (Ulysses Dove, 1984, new production)ODETTA* (Matthew Rushing, 2014)
- Sunday, March 29, 3 p.m.LIFT (Aszure Barton, 2013)The Pleasure of the Lesson* (Robert Moses, 2014)Revelations (Alvin Ailey, 1960)
- *Boston premiere ^Company premiere in 2014