Revelations for generations
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a Mother’s Day Weekend must-see at NJPAC.
By Jacqueline Cutler
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Revelations is why people dance. And it’s why people watch dance. The definition of transformative art, it is impossible to experience it and remain unchanged.
The company’s most iconic piece, it portrays the deep history of African Americans in 10 parts. Revelations encompasses both searing pain and sweet hope. It’s not surprising that choreographer Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece, set to spirituals, elicits “amens” from the audience.
Radiating optimism and love, the piece remains a natural choice for the company’s Mother’s Day program at NJPAC from May 12-14.
“Certainly there is a tradition of mothers and Ailey – bringing your mother to see a performance and mother bringing you – and it seemed to fit into the whole performance,” says Robert Battle, the company’s Artistic Director. “Revelations has the feeling of a celebration. It amplifies all the things people are feeling about Mother’s Day already.”
While putting together the Mother’s Day program, Battle wanted joyful dances. He picked The Winter in Lisbon, a ballet celebrating Dizzy Gillespie and set to his music.
Another jazz legend, Ella Fitzgerald, will also be honored with Ella, a dance Battle created years ago.
“When you hear the scat, you hear quotations and suggestions of words and attitude,” he explains. “I wanted to make a dance that expressed the visualization of the scatting.”
The music in both numbers is intended to spark memories, particularly among moms in the audience who, Battle says, “remember when that music was not just about the music. People would dance to it.”
Jazz also sets the tone for r-Evolution, Dream, Hope Boykin’s glorious tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boykin chose the music of her friend, Ali Jackson (a member of Jazz at Lincoln Center), to fuel the piece, which premieres this season.
Boykin, a dancer with the company since 2000, dates her inspiration to a visit a couple of years ago to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Someone wanted her to keep moving through the exhibit. Spellbound while listening to a recording of King, Boykin could not.
“I could not help the feeling of thinking this man’s words are not just powerful words,” Boykin says. “He was not just a powerful orator – there was the rhythm within them.”
Dr. King’s impassioned words and his rousing cadence lingered; his words inspiring her steps. Just as Fitzgerald’s scat inspired Battle’s rhythm for the movements of Ella, the dramatic ebb and flow of Dr. King’s speeches gave Boykin’s dance a foundation.
“I started working on movement right away,” Boykin recalls. “I was on a press adventure with Mr. Battle, after ODETTA premiered two years ago. During that time we had several weeks off and I went to Atlanta for the week and I talked to a couple of people about it and started to create movement. It wasn’t like I needed to use my iPhone or iPad – it just kept coming back. It stayed with me for an entire tour.”
A few months later, she made an appointment to talk with Battle and told him, “’I know this is unorthodox,’” Boykin recalls. “’People don’t come to you and say, “I have something for you.”’ I told him going on that trip with him was why I had the idea, and I started to hear he liked the idea.”
Three months after that chat, while the company was in South Africa, Battle said to Boykin: “I told you we are doing the piece, right?”
The dance, which includes a narration by Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr., is extraordinarily powerful, perfectly fitting with the fierce dignity of the company. r-Evolution, Dream opens with a man in Dr. King’s signature white shirt, skinny tie and black pants, as he preaches without words. Still, those words resonate deep within us.
Clad in costumes of black, lime, magenta and pearl gray, which Boykin designed, the dancers take us through modern civil rights history as farmers and domestics march. No protest signs are necessary; the grace and strength of their bodies commanding the stage is enough.
Only one woman in the dance wears pants. And that petite, pale, red-haired dancer represents Boykin’s guiding force, her mother.
“My mom was an educator and she graduated from college at 18 and started teaching right away,” Boykin says. “She wore the pants in the family.”
This dance is also a perfect fit for Mother’s Day. Had Battle not chosen r-Evolution, Dream for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Boykin says she still would have created it – even if that meant dancing it in her living room.
“I am trying to represent something, what people have done and how they have helped me to get better,” she says. “And to celebrate my mother in that celebration.”
All mothers and children naturally have a link on Mother’s Day, but Boykin goes one better: She was born on Mother’s Day, 45 years ago. Boykin and her mom always try to spend the day together. Several times the older woman has come up from Durham, N.C. to celebrate at NJPAC.
It was Boykin’s mother who took her, as a toddler, to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Battle, too, was a child when he first saw the company. Both know the influence that dance can have.
“Especially in tough times the arts, I believe, have an important role,” Battle says. “Regardless of the subject matter of the dance – movement in and of itself – we have the luxury of ambiguity. Oftentimes we can get tough messages through, which you can’t do with language. Looking at the polarization of this country, it is important to have the arts. With the arts, we get people who would not otherwise be hanging out together. It is very, very important at this time and that we don’t forget laughter.”
Jacqueline Cutler has covered a variety of beats for many newspapers and has a book review column in The Star-Ledger. One of the best days of her life was making it through a few auditions for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Feb. 24, 2017