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

By Greer, Bonnie | New Statesman (1996), August 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

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


Greer, Bonnie, New Statesman (1996)


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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.