I’ve been watching the amazing dancers who work with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company since their first time to perform in Minneapolis, decades ago when they toured cities in the US. That night, I watched spell-bound as Judith Jamieson, a lead member of the corps, sashayed across our stage, left to right, jubilant and feisty under what has become a signature white parasol in one of the iconic moments in “Revelations.” The company has become one of this country’s premier artistic organizations, showing any who see them that black lives not only matter but can offer us all beauty and energy and focused passion. These days, I travel to Chicago every early March to see two nights of their offerings, a pilgrimage from which I have just returned. I want to say something about what I saw this time.
First of all, the Chicago audience adores these dancers and is made up of about 70% black people and 30% white people. This means the company (composed of young black women and men except for one Hispanic man, one Asian woman and two white men) gets great waves of appreciation and support from us in the seats, something that only fuels the hypnotic energy displayed on stage. I saw two new works, two older pieces rethought by current choreographers, a solo number (“In/Side”) that was unbelievably difficult and perfectly executed by Solomon Dumas, a relatively new member of the company. I saw a duo, danced with great verve and delight, to music provided by Ella Fitzgerald in one of her impeccable scat numbers in which she seems not to have bothered to breathe. And, of course, I saw “Revelations,” that crucial early piece so important to Alvin himself and so poorly received initially by New York City critics because of their unexamined racial stereotypes about who could dance and to what they could do that.
What I want to speak to now are those two performances of the story of sin and redemption, set in a Gospel modality. This is the fourth generation of dancers to render the scenes, so there is the chance of its having become a ritual without the original conviction felt by Jamieson and her fellow dancers. But nothing could be further from the truth. These young people are not just doing the “Ailey thing” to please the audience. I felt and saw their total commitment to being the very best ensemble from the moment the curtain rises to show them compacted into a sentient whole as they speak about being ‘buked’ but not broken. Though about twelve dancers thrust splayed fingers into the air or arch their individual arms to look like large birds intent upon flying away from danger, what I feel is a single organism, a community speaking and moving as one against injustice and sorrow. These days, the audience breaks into applause as soon as we see them, offering some kind of second-hand support for the journey about to be presented.
As the segments unfold–the single male sinner who wants to be “ready to put on that long white robe” of forgiveness and redemption; the three men still racing with that special energy we aren’t quite ready to give up sinning; the marvelous group of church women with their tiny stools and large fans, who congregate to share gossip and witness to Jesus’ goodness; the group in white gossamer waving tall banners and great cloth strips that become the water through which the lead dancers must “wade” to cross over into paradise; and the final assembly who sing over and over “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” as they and we magically know that goodness really can exist, even when the odds seem to project otherwise.
And then they all stop moving and most of us, black and white together, stand and shout and understand something for a few moments. Grateful, the dancers invite us to clap on the off-beat so they can keep going for a little longer. And lots of us do just that, caught up in a magic moment outside of time and the 24-hour news cycles that fragment and dishearten us. I keep expecting some of the audience to step out into the aisles and imitate the steps of our performers, or for some of them to leap down from the stage and move among us. That doesn’t happen, but the possibility hangs in the air. I only hope Alvin Ailey’s spirit somehow knows that this story in movement that he envisioned and formulated so long ago can still enliven both dancers and watchers, that those initial white critics were just plain wrong about who can dance and to what music.