Tuesday, May 24, 2011

50 Years of Revelations [guest post]

Last week at the Auditorium Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was both a spectacular dance concert and an important history lesson. Gorgeous sculpted bodies performed with such impressive virtuosity that people could barely wait until the bows to cheer wildly. “Amens” periodically burst from the audience, affirming a perfectly executed pirouette or a Michael-Jordan-sized leap.

But what impressed me more than any high kick was the careful and calculated looking back as the company moves on to a new era, passing the baton of Artistic Director from Mr. Ailey’s muse and chosen successor Judith Jamison to choreographer extraordinaire Robert Battle.

This season marks the 50th anniversary of Mr. Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations. The milestone was commemorated by a short documentary, an elegant editing together of vintage dance clips and Mr. Ailey’s and Ms. Jamison’s musings on the intent, power and persistence of Revelations. The work, set in three sections, uses spirituals, gospel songs and blues music to tell the stories of African American faith, joy and perseverance. It is loosely based on Mr. Ailey’s southern upbringing in the churches and cotton fields of 1930’s Texas.

I have seen Revelations before, but never truly appreciated the accomplishment of its immortality. If dog years are seven to one human years, dance years are more like twenty to one. Dances disappear as often as they are made. Although in recent years video has helped preserve the steps, the passion and intent often get lost in the game of telephone that is required to pass down choreography. Just as a painting fades over time, a dance can easily become an archive of steps, devoid of the initial spark that started the fire. I know I’m seeing one of these dances when the dialogue in my head sounds like, “I appreciate and respect what I am seeing. I understand its importance. But I feel nothing in my gut.

When the screen lowered onto the stage and the documentary film began as a preface to Revelations on Wednesday night, I started to anticipate (and dread) that feeling. “I’m in a museum now. This video is the plaque in front of the exhibit, the framework through which I’m supposed to experience the next 20 minutes. I’m meant to appreciate this history and I’m being told (by Mr. Ailey himself!) how to feel. Can I truly experience this dance, here and now, in this moment?” It is the 'liveness' and immediacy of dance that draw me to it. It exists in moving, breathing, thinking, changing bodies. It is different on every stage, with every new dancer and with each new day.

But as Revelations began my nervousness dissipated. This work is the perfect storm of artistic innovation, commercial success and historical staying-power. The Ailey dancers have a great responsibility on their shoulders, to continue to breathe new life into the steps while paying homage to what has come before them. It is a precarious balance of moving forward while looking back, a tight rope act that this company continues to ace – especially as Mr. Battle takes the reins and charges ahead. For me, the lesson was learned. Revelations has a magical timelessness. I both appreciate the history behind it and feel the urgency in front of me. This history is not static or stale; it exists in the sweating, working, beautiful bodies of these talented artists.

The steps and the spirit of Revelations remain as vibrant as ever. Fifty never looked better.

Ed. Note: We invite all our readers to share their thoughts on Revelations in the comments and performance attendees to leave us feedback on Talkbackr.

Lizzie Leopold
Lizzie Leopold is a Chicago choreographer and dance scholar. She is the Artistic Director of the Leopold Group and holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BFA in Dance) and New York University (MA in Performance Studies). Lizzie is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, writing about the intersection of dance and business.

No comments:

Disqus for Auditorium Theatre Blog