The last weekend in March marked the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s tenth performance in the Harriman-Jewell Series, an association that goes back to 1968, when the series (then in only its third season) was housed in the small chapel of the William Jewell College campus in Liberty, Missouri, and the small, struggling Alvin Ailey Dance Theater was station-wagoning its way across the country on its first nationwide tour. In his brief opening remarks Friday night, Harriman-Jewell director Clark Morris related that series founder Richard Harriman welcomed Alvin Ailey at a time (four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964) when some performing arts organizations still shied from a mostly Black company.
How times have changed. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is now one of the most renowned and established in the world. And its first appearance in Kansas City in six years took place in the Kauffman Center’s gleaming, state-of-the art Muriel Kauffman Theatre, whose open stage, soaring ceiling and vertiginous seating might have been specially designed for Ailey’s upward-glancing, heaven-reaching gestural vocabulary.
I first saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater sitting fairly close up in New York City’s City Center, a beautifully dark, ornate Neo-Moorish jewel box of a theater with a traditional contained proscenium. High in an upper tier of the Kauffman, I felt I was seeing Ailey’s work at last as it was meant to be seen, from the viewpoint of the childhood God or family ancestors to whom his work sometimes seems to be addressed.
An eloquent writer and speaker (not always the case with artists whose work is so much of the body), Ailey described himself and his background thus: “I am a Black man whose roots are in the sun and the dirt of the south. My roots are in the blues, in the street people whose lives are full of beauty and misery and pain and hope. My roots are also in the Gospel church, the Gospel church of the south where I grew up. Holy blues, paeons to joy, anthems to the human spirit.”
It is that beauty and misery and pain and hope that live on so powerfully in the best of Ailey’s work. And it is due to his belief in the universality of the human spirit that Ailey made the intentional and brilliant choice to name his company not the Alvin Ailey Black Dance Theater, but the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As he said of his mission: “I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings.”
The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is not only multicultural (though primarily Black), it is also more diverse in size than more traditional ballet companies, which are often nearly uniform in height. This variance is cleverly deployed in unexpected lift pairings that either exaggerate or reverse size differences and to create heightened impressions of forced perspective that emphasize Ailey’s geometries and configurations, notably on the iconic stunning opening of “Revelations.”
The first act (“Just Fooling”) of Twyla Tharp’s Roy’s Joys is well served by the rangy swagger of the company’s taller members while its peppy firecracker passages offered nice showcases to the company’s more petite dancers. Tharp’s relaxed wit and spontaneous street fair mood started the program on a casually pleasant note, with goofy struts, rambunctious tangles, and playfully pugnacious face-offs (James Gilmer and Solomon Dumas). Admittedly, somewhere in the middle, the aimlessness did begin to wear thin. Questions flitted across the mind, like: When were people ever this relaxed? Can too much lightheardedness make one anxious? And: How much longer? Turns out nine (!) saucy songs about lettuce and love can start to strain one’s patience.
That amuse bouche was followed by a far heavier piece whose themes are unfortunately all too relevant. Premiered in 1986, four years before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, “Survivors” was intended as a commentary on Mandela’s struggle and imprisonment. Ailey described it at the time as “a kind of compendium and abstraction of my rage.”
Because I didn’t see the note about Mandela until afterward, the lighting design of the first act evoked to me slaves running for freedom through moon-lit forest. In the second act, what had appeared to be an aerial sculpture descends and reveals itself as prison bars. As Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Vernard Gilmore and Ghrai DeVore-Stokes emote beautifully in possibly the strangest and most poignant pas de deux of all time, reaching for one another, futilely, through the prison bars. The scene echoes far beyond the historical, given our country’s mass imprisonment of Black men in a $4 billion for-profit private prison industrial complex.
“Survivors” is set to a searing score by legendary jazz drummer and composer Max Roach, with vocalizations by Abbey Lincoln that crescendo to harrowing screams of anguish. They are the cries of Winnie Mandela, but we hear in them also the cries of Emmett Till’s mother, and of the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols and hundreds more. Maybe the final image, of a fiery DeVore-Stokes leading a defiant chorus in high, decisive kicks and thudding stomps, suggests the revolutionary promise of a people united.
There was one reason the audience was there, and, at last, they were richly rewarded, with a glorious performance of Ailey’s signature, “Revelations.” Born into the Great Depression in Jim Crow Texas, Alvin Ailey grew up in poverty, wandering from town to town with his single mother as she sought work in cotton fields or as a domestic in white households. Of his childhood Ailey said simply: “I was miserable then and felt very alone.”
His one refuge was the church, and the music in it. From our tier on high the company appeared as a single body, an assembly of celebrants, moving as one, leading the audience in praise. From the raised, prayerful arms of the hushed choral opening, the fluid sinuousness of “Wade in the Water,” with its dazzling white costumes and twirling white parasols and pennants, and the huge yellow sun and smaller yellow suns of the women’s round fans and hats, Revelations” is a tribute to the spirit of that church and its music, to what Ailey called “my blood memories. The memories of my parents, uncles and aunts. Blues and gospel songs that I knew from Texas.”
Ailey’s genius was forging jubilation from the hard material of his childhood pain, and audiences cannot help but respond. When everyone in the Kauffman is on their feet, clapping, swaying and singing in time to “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” it is clear what makes art matter, “Revelations” an enduring masterpiece, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater always a welcome presence in Kansas City.