In American dance, few works are as intimately wedded to their creator as “Revelations” and Alvin Ailey. And there are few rituals as beloved as its presentation at the end of every performance wherever Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater appears.
As the New York-based company swings through California and Arizona this spring, many audience members will come explicitly to experience it — even those who have seen the piece numerous times before. To them, “Revelations” is an object of veneration.
“I remember we did a program where we didn’t end with it,” said Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, in an interview last fall. “Afterwards we had a Q and A. This lovely woman who comes specifically to see ‘Revelations’ was not happy at all. She accused me of neglect.”
Created in 1960 as the civil rights movement was stirring and set to the traditional blues, song-sermons and Baptist gospel refrains of Ailey’s hardscrabble Texas childhood, “Revelations” was a radical act for its time. Its three movements, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water” and “Move, Members, Move,” contain as much grief as joy. It carries us through several centuries of the black experience in America. Yet, unlike many musty “message” works of the time, “Revelations” contains not a hint of preachiness.
The opening image — the dancers are bathed in deep ocher light and posed in a downstage triangle — is so famous that it often receives its own ovation.
“Revelations” is a masterpiece not only because it miraculously synthesizes the complexity of a particular history into a muscular and memorable choreographic language, but also because of its thematic economy. If you watch closely, those deliberative shapes and phrases presented in the first section, “I Been ‘Buked,” return again and again.
Despite the work’s overall seriousness, Ailey isn’t afraid to make us chuckle. The simple act of women fanning themselves in the oppressive midday sun somehow transforms into an intricate ballet of competitiveness and vanity.
Ailey paints pictures with the barest minimum of resources. Two bolts of shimmering blue fabric, for example, become a fast-flowing river that surrounds and envelops the dancers.
“Revelations” is an ideal introduction to Ailey’s distinctive style, an unlikely yet seamless amalgam of influences.
From his early mentor in Los Angeles, Lester Horton, Ailey incorporated elongated flat backs, lateral Ts (while standing sideways to the audience and balancing on one leg, the dancer’s upper body extends horizontally in one direction, the lifted leg stretched horizontally in the other) and hinges (one knee bends while the body leans back).
Martha Graham was another touchstone for Ailey, embodied in his fondness for body-core contractions and sharp, angular motions. And you’ll see Ailey’s love of Broadway and popular dance popping up everywhere.
Ailey spoke about wanting dancers to have a “ballet bottom and modern top.” He valued the long, unbroken line and delicately articulated feet that come from ballet training, but he eschewed classical arm positions for more creative upper-body motions and shapes.
In recent years, Battle has been pushing aesthetic boundaries and encouraging a more varied choreographic palette. Programs contain dances by Paul Taylor, Israeli Ohad Naharin and other distinctive contributors to the contemporary canon. “It’s important for the company to be seen as vital members of the dance world, and to do that we need to have variety,” Battle said.
Battle is only the third person to lead Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, succeeding Judith Jamison in 2011. He brings unusual skills to the role. Growing up in Miami’s largest black neighborhood, Liberty City, Battle was attracted to martial arts, and he got a late start as a dancer, although after graduating from Juilliard he quickly became a standout with Parsons Dance Company.
After seven years at Ailey’s helm, Battle thinks the key to successful programs and seasons is balance. Wearing the mantle of “wokeness” and taking the role of consciousness-raising too seriously can be a mistake:
“Yes, we are about reflecting the times; I think we would lose our compass as a company if we didn’t do those kinds of works … that reflect the relevant issues of the day. At the same time, some people see the arts as a way to escape reality. People need to laugh sometimes and to be reminded of love and beauty.”
Battle is also getting more ambitious with commissions. One of the highlights of this tour is “Lazarus,” a meditation on Ailey’s life by groundbreaking hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, Ailey’s first choreographer-in-residence. It debuted during the company’s month-long New York run at the end of 2018. Though Harris has choreographed for Ailey before, “Lazarus” is the first two-act ballet the company has commissioned.
Harris grew up in North Philadelphia, where he absorbed the vernacular of hip-hop — the intricate footwork, audacious improvisation and martial arts-inspired movement found in house dancing, stepping and other hip-hop styles. In pieces such as “Funkedified,” he refines that language to its shorthand essence: a flurry of disjunctive, angular movements and fast, spatially limited floor patterns, often counterpoised with fluid and expressive arms. Expect “Lazarus” to employ the same seductive vocabulary.
The “Lazarus” commission came out of an extended conversation with friends and colleagues about how to celebrate the company’s 60th season in the penumbra of Black Lives Matter and other forms of social upheaval affecting the African-American community, Battle said. “What we kept hearing from people on the inside and the outside was this desire to hear Mr. Ailey’s voice, even in the work of others.”
Ailey honors a talented female choreographer with “EN,” a piece by Jessica Lang the company premiered to positive reviews at Lincoln Center in June 2018. Set to a hypnotic and tense minimalist electronic score by Jakub Ciupinski, “EN” explores circular group shapes as it hints at vortexes, explosions and other violent acts of nature. The ensemble often moves quickly in and out of tight formations as if propelled by some unseen force.
Battle has also programmed “Juba” (2003), the first dance he completed for the company. Battle’s movement is wild, ritualistic and uninhibited, conversing in tight, terse dialogue with an original score for string quartet and percussion by John Mackey, a frequent Battle collaborator. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thrill, requiring the kind of unfettered athleticism that’s an Ailey company trademark.
Battle said the company always looks forward to visiting California — especially Los Angeles, the city where Ailey grew up and began his dance career. “The excitement is definitely electric in L.A. The anticipation starts long before the curtain goes up. There’s a sense of reconnecting with Alvin’s roots, which is always felt. It’s the place where he became a dancer, and I swear there’s something in the air there. It’s palpable.”
Three other California dance companies worth seeing
• Alonzo King LINES Ballet: King’s company embodies his contemplative yet intense choreographic philosophy. 26 Seventh St., 5th Floor, San Francisco. (415) 863-3040. linesballet.org
• Diavolo: Founded by French choreographer Jacques Heim, Diavolo lives up to its name, with devilishly difficult pieces that combine modern dance, acrobatics and gymnastics. 616 Moulton Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 225-4290. diavolo.org
• L.A. Dance Project: This small group specializes in quirky, stimulating programs. Founded by former New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied. 2245 E. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 622-5995. ladanceproject.org