While a student at Curie Metropolitan High School on Chicago's South Side, Vernard J. Gilmore watched a friend's old videotape of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing its signature work, Revelations. Besides exclaiming, "Oh my God, I'm going to dance with that company!," Gilmore was taken with two central stage props from Ailey's 1960 evocation of black spirituals: the huge umbrella from the "Take Me to the Water" section and the giant sun framing the rousing "Rocka My Soul" finale, Ailey's symbols of inclusiveness. "They're both circular," says Gilmore, an ensemble member since 1997. "And that's an idea Mr. Ailey wanted to transmit to the world‹that we're all connected."
Ailey, who died in 1989, established his contemporary African-American dance company 50 years ago after performing with Lester Horton's multiracial troupe. Horton took a holistic approach to dance and incorporated jazz and blues music into his full-bodied choreography. When Horton died suddenly of a heart attack in 1953, Ailey continued his mentor's legacy. Back then, Ailey had no idea that his own company‹ which makes its annual appearance at the Auditorium Theatre this month‹would become the internationally admired institution it is today. He once said, "Originally, I just wanted to say something about the black experience in my own choreography."
Revelations, one of those early works that continues to stir audience's souls, is intimately tied to Ailey's memories of the Baptist church he attended as a child in Texas. He wrote of wanting to recreate "baptisms by tree-shrouded lakes" and "Holy Rollers' tambourines shrieking in the night." Though firmly rooted in an African-American aesthetic, the Ailey company has come to embody the human experience in all its messy and ebullient glory. And perhaps it's this willingness to embrace all humanity that prompts viewers to literally stand up and cheer, even if they've seen Revelations dozens of times.
Artistic director‹and majestic Ailey muse‹Judith Jamison, says the troupe most strongly believes in "reciprocity", encouraging the audience to be engaged with the artists and with their fellow audience members. Many times, viewers are having such a personal experience with the performers on stage, they would be hard-pressed to describe the stranger sitting next to them. At an Ailey show, it's not uncommon for total strangers to spontaneously hug each other. And that expression can be traced back to Ailey himself. Jamison remembers him as "this warm bear hug of a man" who was "a real lover of the human race."
Ailey's embracing philosophy‹much of it inspired by his own "blood memories"‹is manifested in the company's eclectic repertoire. The Chicago program, with its historic revivals and premieres, represents a continuum of interconnected forms of movement expression. "It's a breathing, living history," says Jamison. "The Ailey company is almost like a volcano. There's always something churning underneath."
By that, she means the group doesn't intend to rest on its laurels. It constantly seeks new ways of commenting on the world and exploring the endless range of rhythmic possibilities. Ailey incorporated the Lindy hop into his first dance, Blues Suite. Jamison's newest discovery, spitfire choreographer Camille A. Brown, merges playful walks with grand jetes in her mini urban dance-drama, The Groove to Nobody's Business, set on a subway platform. In the same propulsive vein is Talley Beatty's turbulent 1959 ballet, The Road of the Phoebe Snow, named for a real train and chronicling the lives of disenchanted youth who live on the wrong side of the tracks.
Music is a key driver in the Ailey rep. His 1962 Reflections in D is a technically demanding solo to a Duke Ellington score. Ailey originally choreographed the piece for himself: Gilmore and seven other men perform it in Chicago. Interestingly, none of them rehearse in the same room. "We don't want to be influenced by each other," says Gilmore. "It's important that I find out how I can make it work in my body. Mr. Ailey always wanted to see you‹who you are as an individual‹in the movement."
An underlying truth emerges from every dancer as each puts his or her personal stamp on issues familiar to us all. Robert Battle's Unfold, receiving its company premiere, is‹according to the choreographer‹"designed to capture the intensity of one's first love...that feeling that life stands still." A pas de deux in which the couple rarely look at each other, it pairs flowing arms with staccato-like halts and daunting backbends to evoke the twosome's initial uncertainty. Leontyne Price's sweeping vocals further carry the dance into a lush yet pained alternate universe. Another Ailey hallmark, Flowers‹his 1971 depiction of fame and addiction set to Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd‹returns, as well as his sensual, nocturnal, Ellington-inspired Night Creature.
In late 2007, the fiercely theatrical French choreographer Maurice B_jart died. Shortly before his death, he granted the Ailey company rights to perform his radical 1970 version of Firebird, which transformed the original Michel Fokine-Igor Stravinsky Russian fairytale glorifying monarchy to an allegory on revolution. Chicago audiences will see this rare revival, too.
Jamison danced for B_jart and admired his fearless love of spectacle. "He was a maverick," she declares. "He went out on a limb. As artists, we all should be that courageous." Jamison experienced B_jart's theatrical flair off stage, as well. At a caf_ in Paris, he gave her an unusual gift: a 300-year-old Lucrezia Borgia-style poison ring. "Oh, it's very elaborate," Jamison giggles uncontrollably, "with emeralds and sapphires and these little men supporting the base." (Apparently, B_jart had a habit of buying these ornate rings in Venice and giving them to his leading ladies.)
For 50 years, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has worked with diverse artists from around the world and touched audiences on a global scale. It has balanced social responsibility with transcendent dancing, a deep connection to the music and an ability to probe the complexities of human relationships while being entertaining. When asked how the Ailey artists successfully encompass such a wide range of moods, issues and emotions, Jamison returns to the company's source: "That's all a part of who Alvin was."