Friday, May 1, 2009
Alvin Ailey at 50
The men of Alvin Ailey.
Tuesday brought the great Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater troupe to town for a week-long celebration of its 50th anniversary, hosted by Celebrity Series. The annual Ailey visit is always a cause for celebration, for it brings us back into contact with a dazzling set of dancers. And this time the troupe brought with it a short film about its founder, its current artistic director, Judith Jamison, and of course itself. It also premiered a new piece of choreography - "Go in Grace," developed in concert with the popular a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Still, the visit gave me almost as much cause for pause as it did for celebration. The Ailey dancers, of course, remain fabulous creatures, almost superhuman in their unbelievable energy and presence. But the dance statement they are now making is showing signs of - well, at best over-familiarity, and at worst a kind of folksy tunnel vision, in both artistic and political terms.
"Go in Grace," for instance, sounds so interesting on paper, but felt like little more than a well-intentioned experiment in brand synergy on stage. Ailey dancer (and new choreographer) Hope Boykin has devised a cliched story line that's all about a young girl's coming of age. Her brother gets mixed up with a gang, and her daddy passes away - and it turns out, as I learned from the program notes, that she's also deaf! (To be fair, conveying that in dance would be a challenge.) The sweet thing of course perseveres through her travails, always surrounded by warm, powerful women who are somehow completely powerless to do anything but sing out loud and proud, etc. The music, written as well as sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock, went down easy but was hardly memorable, while the dancing only got lively when that obstreperous, seductive gang was around, and the attempted integration of the singers and the dancers somehow didn't really come off.
Next up was the more engaging, if still superficial, "Suite Otis," a tribute (in hot pink, no less) to the late, great Otis Redding choreographed and costumed by George Falson. Again, the choreography was limited in its vocabulary, and leaned toward clowning, but was so energetic and fun that this hardly mattered. The troupe ended the evening with yet another rendition of their central choreographic text, Ailey's by-now-iconic "Revelations." And truth be told, this dance never really ages, and incredibly, the dancers - some of whom have been doing it over and over again for years - continue to perform it with a moving emotional commitment.
Still, "Revelations" isn't exactly a revelation anymore. And its political content is today undercut with painful irony. Alvin Ailey (as a young man, at left), was not only a great African-American artist, of course, but also a great gay artist, who died of complications from AIDS in 1989 (to the very end, he hid his diagnosis from his homophobic mother). Yet even in its commemorative film about him, the company seems unable to make any mention of his sexuality. Even after 50 years, Alvin Ailey is still in the closet as far as they're concerned. And how is it possible to fully commit ourselves to the human vision of "Revelations" if gay black men are somehow left out of its message? And what exactly is motivating this silence - which is all the stranger given that much Ailey choreography sexualizes the company's male dancers quite openly? (Indeed, "Suite Otis" opens with a young stud wagging his hot-pink-clad bottom at us.) Is the company afraid of losing fans, or losing face, or losing face because of its fans, who may harbor their own form of bigotry?
I don't know the answers to those questions, of course, but I do know that the central question of civil rights in this country today revolves around sexuality. It's time for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater to accept that, and truly embrace the meaning of its founder's life and work.