Your surroundings and the people you encounter can all be used to inspire you, to supply choreography or to provide that image or thing that brings life to that person you are on the stage.
~ AAADT Dancer
In December 2010, I attended one memorable night of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, NYC season.
As someone with a deep appreciation for the visual arts, I was not surprised that the aesthetic appeal of the evening stirred me. Impeccable stage lights, stunning costuming, and aptly selected music, all combined with expertly executed steps to provide an evening of world-class entertainment.
Nothing had prepared me, however, for the feeling I would experience by the end of the night. I can recall half of a year later, the joy that seemed to seep into my pores, and gradually burst into elation before the show was over. As my feet remained grounded, shuffling out of a crowded theater, my entire being felt uplifted, beyond the mundane.
It follows that during the summer of 2011, I could not resist the free, outdoor performance of Ailey’s seminal work, Revelations, by Ailey II, in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Undeterred by the untimely showers of rain, I sat amongst the drenched audience, awaiting the show. The creative director, Sylvia Waters, prepped the dripping crowd for what she described as “a celebration of the human experience”.
Hope was spoken to me in the poetic, ineffable language of gesture and sound. The endless striving for the unattainable ‘better tomorrow’ that helps us to endure the challenges of today, was impressed upon my consciousness in a series of fleeting movements and moments that faded into a beautiful residue. The climactic Sinnerman into Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham pushes ‘redemption’ across the threshold of dream and into reality, bringing the audience along to that final, utopian destination.
The language of the old Negro Spirituals is a map, which guides us backwards through time, to the trials of enslavement and the physical and emotional reprieve of music and belief.
“Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Then why not every man?!”
They appear to me, to be examples, of the very earliest stages of survival through ownership and re-interpretation. A different linguistic construct, another experience, loaned a new weight to the hymns and theology enforced upon Africans on this side of the Atlantic.
Wade in the Water conjures up for me, a vision of Harriet Tubman, guiding her people, time and time again on a perilous, yet necessary journey, in the depths of the night, as surely as if I had been there myself, following voices of cloaked warning. Ailey’s work has provided me with a new visual to relate to this music – the celebratory, open-water baptism that I could witness on a lucky morning, on the shores of my own island.
The style of worship of the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago, most closely resembles the sentiments captured in the Negro Spirituals and early gospel singing from the USA. The singing often embodies both grief and rapture, capturing the expansiveness of these emotions. To be engulfed in the music of this worship is to feel that surely one could be propelled to heaven on a wave of sorrowful tears.
Ailey himself said that he grew up in the dirt and the sun of the south, and he tells this very specific story, through his choreography, with such insight and clarity that anyone can relate to it. It represents to me, the essence of what I strive for in my own practice – to be able to tell a personal story, to delve so deeply into it, that it can reach the humanity in everyone.