Walter’s World: Revelations at Fifty

By Walter Rutledge

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater begins a five-week season on December 1, 2010 at the New York City Center. The season will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Revelation, the masterwork choreographed by company founder Alvin Ailey. In preparation of this milestone the Ailey school’s department of Arts In Education and Community Programs presented a panel discussion entitled Celebrating Revelations at 50.

The evening began in darkness. A voice pierced though the theatrical abyss; the initial recording was Alvin Ailey from the 1962 television special Lamp Unto My Feet. At one point he announced, “I’m Alvin Ailey, I’m a choreographer, I am a black man whose roots are in the sun and dirt of the south…” The omnipresent confidence in his voice, gave the illusion Ailey was here with us, in the poetic sense he was.

Ailey had said those words and performed with his fledging company on this very site forty-eight years ago; at that time the television studios of WNET stood on the corner of Fifty-fifth Street and Ninth Avenue. Now the Joan Weill Center for Dance, the home of the Ailey School, Ailey II, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater occupies the space. How befitting to hear Ailey speak those words in the Ailey Citigroup Theater; part of the edifice for dance he envisioned, but unfortunately never lived to see.

The returning silence was again suspended by the haunting, yet soulful rendition of I’ve Been Buked, the opening section of Revelations. As if there had been a celestial command, “Let there be light”, the cyclorama slowly illuminated cadmium red with a deep amber orb in the center. The familiar image produced a serene and almost reverent feeling, we all realized we in the presence of greatness.

More than money, an artist is ultimately driven by the desire to share. In the case of truly great artists the generosity of the soul speaks a universal, and (in rare instances) timeless language. In the short span of fifty years Revelations has endeared and inspired millions to be named in 2007 by Dance Magazine “the most popular modern dance of all time”. It’s virtues; joy, sorrow, dignity, and the triumph of the human spirit, transcend language and culture and are as timeless as the dancers that adorn a classic Grecian urn.

The panel consisted of two former principal Ailey dancers Donna Wood-Sanders and Dudley Williams, present company member Renee Robinson (all had worked with Ailey), and ballet instructor and former Ailey School Administrator Delores Brown. Artistic Director and Ailey muse Judith Jamison was the panel moderator. The event was informative and entertaining with all of the style and panache synonymous with the Ailey brand.

For an all too short eighty minutes the panel shared their experiences performing in Revelations, and working with choreographer Alvin Ailey. Many former Ailey dancers were in attendance and were given the opportunity to speak. Dorene Richardson, Joan Derby, and Nathaniel Horne eloquently spoke about dancing in the first performance of Revelations, which took place on Sunday, January 31, 1960.

Richardson talked about the day Ailey explained to the dancers his concept for a new dance work he would eventually call Revelations. The common thread in all of the testimonials was being part of a family, a dance community. They expressed their love of dancing in Revelations, and stressed with equal importance their esteem for Alvin Ailey. The dancers who had worked with Ailey each in their own way said, “We danced for Alvin”.

We commend the department of Arts In Education and Community Programs Co- Director Heather McCartney who coordinated the event. When asked to reflect on the evening Ms. McCartney responded, “Revelations has been seen by more people over the last 50 years than any other modern dance work. Its influence reaches far beyond the stage and across generations. Ailey’s student performances and our innovative Revelations residency program, that uses dance to teach language arts and history in the public schools, share the inspiration with younger generations. Ailey’s renowned artists continue to bring this work to life with performances around the world, visiting almost 40 cities this year.

We were happy to further explore the journey of “Revelations” at our recent panel discussion, with reminiscences from Judith Jamison and dance artists who have performed the work. All of us at Ailey are so proud to celebrate Alvin Ailey’s signature masterpiece at this historic time and look forward to the special performances being staged for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s upcoming season at New York City Center beginning December 1st.”

It has been said that history that is not recorded is not remembered, but merely recording history is not enough. This seems to be especially prevalent in our present culture where the thirst for knowledge is not always quenched by reading books. The forum in many respects was a counsel of the elders imbuing the next generation through the ways of our ancestors- the oral tradition.

When asked to give a final thought on Revelation Dudley Williams succinctly summed up his experience by saying, “I speak every language”. Revelations will be presented throughout the season. In some performances it will feature live music conducted by Judith Jamison, and an expanded cast of fifty performers. It is a living work that still resonates the powerful choreographic voice of Alvin Ailey with timeless clarity and strength. Long live Revelations.

In Photo 1) Glenn Allen and Linda Celeste Sims 2) Alvin Ailey 3) Renee Robinson 4) Judith Jamison 5) Dudley Williams

Photo Credit 1) Nan Melville 2) Eric N. Hong 3)Paul Kolnik 4) courtofarhives 5) Wolfgang Strunz

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