Try telling a wordless story in five minutes that inspires your audience and distills reality. At the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), this art is perfected by a team of performers as graceful and poetic as they are energetic and assured. Billed as a “ballet”, Alvin Ailey is refreshingly accessible and attracts a more diverse audience than the typical “Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake.” While generally following the forms of classical ballet, the show includes contemporary music and costuming, and small gestures like jazz hands or waving goodbye help turn dancers into relatable people.
The piece “Bad Blood” is a captivating reflection on relations between the sexes. With striking, clear-cut moves that recall physical training (there’s even a gym bench on stage), the dancers exchange dominance and alternately display strength and weakness, as if in a delicately choreographed game. In music by Laurie Anderson, the singer muses on how people move: “You’re falling, and you catch yourself from falling, and this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.”
“Revelations” is Alvin Ailey’s signature work, according to Gregory Stuart, company manager at the AAADT. The costumed dancers look as if they could have stepped out of a Baptist festival in 1940s Texas, and the music declares “Fix me Jesus!” and “Lord, I wanna be ready.” By turns, the company mourns, flees from sin, crosses a Jordan River (of blue ribbons), and ends with an ecstatic jubilee in which the audience can join in clapping. There is a powerful sense of community in “Revelations,” a striking demonstration of the dancers’ ability to work as a unit without leads, yet with each individual a unique character.
Beneath the rituals and the exquisite choreography, there is a subtler message that dates back to the 1960 premiere. “To me, it’s a protest,” said Shannan Smith, who trained with the Alvin Ailey dance school and now works at the MIT Alumni Association. “A piece about a Negro spiritual with the text ‘I’ve been ‘buked, and I’ve been beaten.’ And that was the piece that they performed when they went round the world.”
The AAADT was founded in 1958 by dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. In 1962, it was selected by President Kennedy to represent the U.S. in an international cultural tour — the first such company to be predominantly black. Though it welcomes dancers of all races, the AAADT remains active in representing the black experience. With reference to herself as a woman of color, Smith declared: “Their virtuosity and the pride they exude — it gives me permission to feel prideful.”
Based in New York City, the company continues to tour widely. “We travel with our own stage,” said Stuart, pointing out the multiple layers of roll-out flooring that provide a firm, slightly springy surface for dancing. By bringing its own tech, the AAADT can dance pretty much anywhere. “We have three tractor-trailers,” added Mychael Chinn, assistant company manager. “They come in at 8 a.m. and we can be performing at 12.”
With such a smooth routine, it is perhaps a challenge to keep much-performed numbers fresh, and at times “Revelations” seems just slightly too polished. Many of the company’s most iconic dances date from the 1960s and have been performed continuously since that time, though new dances continue to be choreographed. Generally, however, each gesture and each number comes across with the characteristic Alvin Ailey vitality, and the dancers are visibly captivated by the art they are creating. Stuart spoke with wonder: “Every night, you get to explore something new.”