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.


  1. Thanks for this interesting piece; I thought the film that introduced the evening was _very_ odd, with only an oblique mention of AA's 'sickness' and none whatsoever of his personal life. (Or rather, only selectively of his personal life.) I didn't know know that AA had died of AIDS until I read this piece; but that was certainly the *inference* I had from the film. So, as Thomas Garvey, indicated, it begs the question: why not just *say* it, instead of dancing around the question? (The answer, depressingly, seems to be institutionalized homophobia.)

  2. Thanks for your comment. The silence about Ailey's life and death from the dance company he founded was perhaps understandable at the time (given the homophobia of his family). But years after the fact, it grows more and more troubling. There is first the hypocrisy latent in their political position; indeed, given that we now have a mixed-race president (and Massachusetts has an African-American governor), their civil-rights message feels more and more like nostalgia. And at the same time, mainstream culture is passing them by in its acceptance of gay rights. To put it bluntly, they're no longer forward-looking but actually backward looking. And in a way they've failed the black community by depriving gay black men (and women) of a powerful role model (whatever the vagaries of his personal life). And given the fact that the black community has borne the brunt of the AIDS epidemic for years, AIDS outreach could, and perhaps should, have been a great new crusade for them. There's no need for a commemorative film to go into the nitty-gritty details of Ailey's famously wayward lifestyle; but to at least describe him as what he was, and move forward with an artistic and political program based on those facts, I'd say is a kind of duty.

  3. And given the number of gay men who have graduated from the company's ranks over the decades (many of whom predeceased Ailey resulting from AIDS complications as well, including Jamison's own ex-husband Miguel Godreau), it is an even more glaring omission.

    The past two Ailey tours that have passed through Texas have been disappointingly mediocre and mostly derivative of some creative zeitgeist. Many things that Jamison tries to do in the way of artistic innovation (all of which seem reserved for the home season and omitted from every tour) is being done with better quality and greater sense of urgency by small companies as far-flung as Idaho and Oregon.

    These tours must certainly reflect a conscious effort to tread the middle ground, excluding as they do most of the "riskier" work until it's been in the Ailey repertoire for at least a decade; a notable exception would be Ron Brown's Grace, touring in its premiere season (1999/2000). The current repertory features revivals of non-Ailey works that are at least fifteen years old, or at least old enough to be well past called "innovative."

    All I can come up with for a larger descriptive phrase is creative torpor.

    Needless to say, my heart did not leap out of my chest at any point during Go In Grace despite my adoration of Hope Boykin -- as a dancer, at least. I was amused to finally see Suite Otis in its entirety, but it is one of those frothy pieces from my early childhood in the seventies (1971) when I didn't live anywhere near an Ailey tour stop and was too young to care. I can't have anyone sitting next to me during Revelations because at this point I've seen it so often that I mark almost every movement in my seat.

    It seems if innovation is what is needed, someone has to come in and mount something from outside (like Naharin mounting Black Milk on the company a few years ago, or the company taking the last movement from Tharp's The Catherine Wheel), and even that doesn't seem to pose much of a challenge to the dancers, who have become almost mechanical in their precision and ability.