Alvin's Stardust: In His 1960 Masterpiece Revelations, the Choreographer Alvin Ailey Told the Story of African Americans-A Story That Is Still Unfolding, Writes Bonnie Greer

Article excerpt

Barack Obama was asked recently on American television why he does not refer to himself as mixed-race. His late mother, the celebrated anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunham, was the product of a white, "all-American" family from Kansas. Yet, as he often does with matters he deems counterproductive or beside the point, Obama deflected the question. Its answer would have been more complex than any soundbite could have handled.

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There was a time in the United States when all people of African descent--no matter how light-skinned--were graded and named, like breeds of cattle. A person with one-eighth African ancestry was designated an "octoroon" and could be bought and sold, or, if an escapee, hunted down and killed with impunity by any white person. This history of being named by others accounts in some ways for the evolving names that we black Americans call ourselves. Obama's deflection of the question signals a silence that only art can fill.

Just over half a century ago, aged 27, the visionary African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey danced into that silence. He had an extraordinary idea: to create his own company, led by black dancers, and through it look his era in the face. In 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was born. There had been black dance companies before, but in his 1960 masterpiece, Revelations, Ailey choreographed the everyday experience of black people and made the world see us anew. This classic will be performed in September at Sadler's Wells as part of an extensive celebration of the company's work.

In Revelations, Ailey brought together artistic references that fascinated him: the paintings of Bruegel, the sculpture of Henry Moore, theatre from the east and the writing of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. These were blended with his love of the spirituals and rituals of his childhood African-American Baptist Church. Revelations is divided into sections depicting the oppressed rising from the earth, the coming to God and baptism, and finally the community and joy of the black church.

The costumes are fluid--like water captured in fabric. Each section has a colour code: earth for the first section, white and pale blue for the second, yellow and black for the last. The fabric of the costumes is stretched and pulled as the dancers move to the music of black gospel classics such as "Wade in the Water". It is impossible not to sing along inside as you watch.

Swiftly recognised as one of the finest examples of American contemporary dance, Revelations was frequently taken on tour abroad by the US state department, something that a black child growing up in the South, as Ailey had done, could never have imagined. This is how he recalled the segregated Texas of the 1930s through which he and his young mother moved, looking for work and roots during the Great Depression, an experience that provided the inspiration for Revelations:

  As early as I can remember, I was enthralled by the music played
  and sung in the small black churches in every small Texas town my
  mother and I lived in. No matter where we were during those nomadic
  years, Sunday was always a churchgoing day. There we would absorb
  some of the most glorious singing to be heard anywhere in the world.
  With profound feeling, with faith, hope, joy and sometimes sadness,
  the choirs, congregations, deacons, preachers and ushers would sing
  black spirituals and gospel songs. They sang and played the music
  with such fervour that even as a small child I could not only hear
  it but almost see it ... I tried to put all of the feeling into
  Revelations.

I like to think that this particular composition is in homage to his mother. In it, Ailey gives us the antidote to all the negative images of black women--particularly dark-skinned black women. It is clear that he revered the black female body and set out to celebrate it as a work of art without salaciousness. …