Over the years, choreographers and dance companies have been feted in many ways, but there has never been another dance piece that inspired not only a US postage stamp and a US Senate resolution and a special Barbie doll! That dance piece, Revelations, by choreographer/dancer Alvin Ailey, founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was created in 1960 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary. FirstWorks will present the troupe’s first Rhode Island appearance at the Providence Performing Arts Center on May 10.
UPLIFTING Ailey dancer Rachael McLaren.
Ailey founded his company in 1958, with an emphasis on ballet lines in the lower body and modern movements in the upper body. He set the dance of Revelations to a clutch of Negro spirituals, beginning with the slow, mournful "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" and ending with a rollicking, joyful "Rocka My Soul In the Bosom of Abraham." I first watched this dance mesmerize an audience in a high school auditorium in Cambridge in 1967, and the images from those opening and closing sections have never left me.
Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the company since Ailey's death in 1989, first saw Revelations performed in 1963. When she joined the company as a dancer in 1965, her first rehearsal was to learn that piece.
"The company had made it look so easy," Jamison recalled, in a recent phone conversation from her New York home, "but it was very difficult to do."
The dance requires dancers to have a solid ballet foundation but also to have studied modern dance techniques, especially those developed by Lester Horton, who drew on Afro-Caribbean, Native American, and Far Eastern dance to create expressive undulations and reaching, arching poses for the whole body. In the duet of "Fix Me, Jesus," Jamison had to nail a T-position, bending from her knees into an almost flat-back pose, before she also learned the iconic role of the woman with a large white umbrella in "Wade In the Water."
Growing up in the black church, Jamison already knew all the spirituals in Revelations, and she remembers, "Coming to a company that was using those was a blessing.
"Alvin understood people and the human experience," she continued. "You don't have to be black to understand what Revelations is all about. The titles point to deliverance and salvation, survival and triumph."
Jamison noted that each generation of dancers has brought something different to Revelations: "Even though it's the same steps, they wouldn't hardly do it the same way I did it. It's better. These dancers have incredible physical challenges that we didn't have to deal with, and through all those technical demands, they still dance from the inside out, from the heart, the spirit, the soul."
Revelations uses 18 dancers; a five-minute film, by Judy Kinberg and Tom Hurwitz, will introduce the 35-minute piece. The choral arrangements, originally by Howard Roberts and Ella Jenkins, have featured such gospel greats as Tramaine Hawkins and Richard Smallwood.
The evening's program includes three other pieces: George Faison's Suite Otis (1971), a tribute to Otis Redding; Camille Brown's The Evolution of a Secured Feminine (2007); and The Hunt (2001), by Robert Battle's, who will take over the reins of AAADT in July.