The Power of Black Experience in Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”

By Dr. Michelle T. Summers and Susan Garcia Hakes

As part of the Dance and Religion course taught by Dr. Michelle Summers in Spring 2018, students had the opportunity to attend a performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at Cal Performances on April 12. Thanks to an Arts Enrichment Grant from CARe, the class was able to witness, in person, Ailey’s longstanding masterpiece Revelations as an exploration of African-American spirituality on the concert stage. Paired with a book by dance scholar Thomas DeFrantz on the longevity and vitality of this particular piece, students were able to better understand how the company became an “African American cultural institution” partly through the embodiment of “rural Southern spirituality” paired with modern dance techniques on stage (DeFrantz vii, 3). First performed in 1960, Revelations is a staple of the Ailey Company and a rite of passage as new generations of dancers and audience-goers witness its power, complexity, and beauty. Below, Susan Garcia Hakes, a student in the course, reflects on her experience of seeing this performance:

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A theme we kept returning to in our Dance and Religion class was whether you can discuss and write about dance to truly understand and analyze it. Is not the only way to really understand dance, to dance?

I would argue that the next best thing is to at least see dance. Our class had the opportunity to watch Alvin Ailey’s troupe perform at Zellerbach Hall on UC Berkeley’s campus on a rainy night last spring. As part of our exploration of American dance, we had been discussing choreographers such as Katherine Dunham, and how her experience with Haiti and Haitian religious dance had transformed her dancing style into the provocative choreography she later brought to the United States. Ailey’s work as a choreographer dates from around the same time. Similarly to Dunham, Ailey was inspired by the communities around him, especially religious communities who expressed their faith and the black experience through dance. He was particularly inspired by his time spent in black churches in America, and Revelations highlights the beauty of worship dance translated to the American concert stage.

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Katherine Dunham

To understand Ailey fully, you have to see his dancers. There is a magical quality about the dancers’ bodies that can’t be envisioned – it has to be experienced. There is wonder in their control, and emotion that cannot be contained in their twisting, straining bodies. Though Alvin Ailey’s choreography is now taught by other dancers, his legacy is clearest in watching his own dancers on stage. Without seeing Ailey’s work on stage, especially Revelations, it is impossible to appreciate his inspiration. The music, lights and especially the performers highlight Ailey’s ties to African American religious expression and the deep connection he felt for African American art and artists that predated him. Revelations uses African American gospel and worship songs as inspiration and features dancers mimicking the water rites of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin as well as black church-goers on a Sunday afternoon. Another piece we saw, Billie, paid tribute to Billie Holiday by showcasing her vocal works and featuring jazz-inspired dance moves.

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The Alvin Ailey Theatre performing Billie

For me personally, there was also something incredibly moving in seeing such a masterpiece of dance performed almost entirely by black dancers. The Alvin Ailey Theatre still attracts a large African American contingent in its audience, a rarity in concert dance. Ailey’s theatre company is to many still the epitome of black excellence in dance. We read often about choreographers like Dunham and Ailey being pigeonholed into the category of “black dance” and working to combat such stereotypes. Thus, it was very inspiring to me to see Ailey’s vision executed so powerfully on stage, many years after his passing. To be surrounded by a black audience, moved to tears and rising to their feet at the conclusion of Revelations by this powerful representation of the black experience – that’s a moment I will not forget.

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Members of the Alvin Ailey Theatre perform Revelations

GTU faculty members, are you interested in integrating the arts into your course? Would you like to take your students on a field trip to a museum, concert, performance, or other arts event? For the Fall 2018 semester, CARe is pleased to offer five $200 Arts Enrichment Grants to help fund tickets, transportation and other expenses in order to encourage faculty to add arts activities to their courses.

To apply, send an email to care@gtu.edu, covering the following points:

What is the venue you plan to visit; which specific activity or performance?
How will the grant help pay for the field trip? (e.g. BART tickets, museum admission)
How will you use this arts enrichment in your teaching? Please attach a course syllabus.
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