Alvin Ailey’s Imaginary Scenery



Revelations, a dance by the American choreographer Alvin Ailey, is believed to be the most viewed dance performance of our time. People from all around the world enjoy this moving and lively work. Enchanted by the expressive movements, carried away with the music, they are drawn into the world of African-Americans and their journey from slavery to freedom. By the end of the show the audience is extremely excited – much more than in most dance productions. Is this simply the result of an excellent performance?

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) was born in Texas to a seventeen-year-old mother; his father deserted them when he was six months old. Poverty, racial segregation, and moving from place to place filled his childhood experience. At the age of eleven his mother moved to Los Angeles and he joined her shortly afterwards. Los Angeles offered better education, and young Alvin revealed an inclination to the languages and arts. After some hesitation he decided to turn to dancing. He joined the Horton School for Dancing, a school with a very particular perspective: all students had to take not only ballet and modern dance classes, but also painting, acting, design, music, and costuming. Alvin absorbed this approach and later made it an important element in his work. In 1958 he founded the ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’, a dance group combining various dance styles: ballet, modern dance, jazz – and African dance. Revelations, his masterpiece, is founded on his bitter memories from Texas, and more generally, it presents the history of African-Americans, from slavery to freedom.

When creating Revelations, Alvin strived to reach a holistic theatrical experience. The costumes, the lighting, even the make-up were all part of the dance, as important as the choreography and the performance of the dancers. The movements can be described at an abstraction of the daily lives of African-Americans: a humped slave looking down, people looking upwards in prayer, poorly dressed slaves, women using straw hats, hand fans and parasols to cope with the heat, baptism in the river, a ceremony in the church, slaves working in cotton fields. The mimesis of daily life is very detailed, to the point that typical facial expressions are presented.

One thing, however, is lacking: theatrical scenery.

At the back of the stage either a huge sun or a moon can be seen. Nothing more. No picture of life in the south of the United States at the time, nothing constructed on stage to create an illusion of real life in the South — all that is left to the imagination of the audience. Every spectator watching this magnificent work has to use his or her imaginative faculties to reconstruct the circumstances depicted in the dance.

Of course, lack of theatrical scenery is nothing uncommon in modern dance. The break with the rigid tradition of classical ballet also entailed reservations regarding the pseudo-realistic scenery of well-known ballet performances. Today, digital art is often part of a dance. But all these are entirely different from the daring experimental spirit of Alvin Ailey: presenting history through dance, without scenery to support it.

The use of accessories – dancers holding parasols, swinging hand fans in different directions, even waving a blue silk cloth on stage to represent ‘the river’ – only further emphasizes the absence of a matching background. Accessories are almost never used by themselves; they match, in form and substance, the general conception of the performance. In Revelations, they are clues; objects that are intended to evoke associations of African-American life without explicitly presenting it on stage.

The fullest expression of the unique role of accessories is the use of stools in ‘The Day is Past and Gone’, in the third part of Revelations. A couple of women dance while sitting, turning, or standing on stools. The realistic notion created by this very simple piece of furniture is strongly juxtaposed with the lack of a wider context: where are they sitting, why did they meet, when did they meet?

In omitting what would normally be an essential part of the show, Ailey turns the audience members into active participants: a constant effort has to be made – even if unconsciously – to reconstruct the historical environment of the dancers. The spectators are like readers of a book, who know the plot but don’t know where and when it took place. Thus, the sufferings and joys of African-American history are revived in the most personal and meaningful way.

In the very last song, ‘Rocka my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham’ the audience goes wild. After reliving the suffering of slavery, bringing the old Deep South back to life, they revel in the liberating message of Gospel music – just like the African-Americans portrayed in Revelations.

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