Making their much-anticipated annual return to the Kennedy Center Opera House, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater arrives just in time to share beauty and rejoicing at a moment of peril.
In real-time, we’re seeing state and local governments trying to purge Black history, art, and intellect from public discourse, tossing Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and a host of other essential voices off bookshelves and out of classrooms, along with anything remotely queer.
The dance company’s founder, Alvin Ailey, a Black, gay man, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989, might certainly be included among those figures whose influence and accomplishments couldn’t even be mentioned in some schools.
“Alvin Ailey has always been a threat to the status quo,” says Robert Battle, the company’s artistic director since 2011. “He was always a mover and shaker, who saw this vision, who founded the company on the brink of the civil rights movement in 1958. You can think of it now as, ‘Oh, it’s a dance company,’ and make as if that was some kind of easy thing to do, to have this group of Black dancers traveling the world representing this country.
“And the fact that he put ‘American’ in the title — the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — was also a bold political and social statement.”
Yet, while staying resolutely true to his bold Black vision, Ailey built his radical concept into a dance and arts education institution and performance company beloved around the globe. While inducting Ailey at the Kennedy Center Center Honors in 1988, Cicely Tyson, referring to the artist and his work, said, “He’s Black and he’s universal,” a notion Battle finds inspiring.
“I dare say, he’s Black, therefore he is universal,” remarks Battle, noting the worldwide influence of Black art and culture. “That universality in the expression is, I think, a part of why this company is universal in and of itself. Global.
“And that started with his imprint on the company and what he wanted it to be, accessible for everybody. That’s the kind of work he wanted to create. That’s the kind of atmosphere he wanted to create, that nobody felt left out.
“That’s why that work that he created called Revelations, our calling card as a company that we often close the program with, although it’s a suite of spirituals that expresses the experiences of African-Americans in this country and how we overcame some of the atrocities of hate through faith, it turns out — as a masterpiece is — it’s a message of hope for all who view it.”
Audiences at this season’s Kennedy Center engagement can view Revelations closing each of the four different programs the company will perform. The troupe will also debut their own rendition of Paul Taylor’s 1964 modern pas de deux DUET, and perform for the first time at the Kennedy Center two works the company world premiered in 2022 — choreographer Kyle Abraham’s Are You In Your Feelings? and In a Sentimental Mood, choreographed by Jamar Roberts, a former Ailey dancer.
“He danced with the company for many years,” says Battle, mentioning as an aside that, like him, Roberts hails from Miami. “And then, several years ago, I discovered that he had a choreographic voice that was very strong. And I had him create work for the company. Then I made him the first-ever resident choreographer. That’s how strongly I felt about his work.”
Battle describes In a Sentimental Mood as a duet tinged with mystery. “It’s about that well-traveled road called relationships,” set to the music of Duke Ellington, and a moody cover of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant.
As for the hip-hop and soul-inflected Are You In Your Feelings?, Battle says, “Kyle Abraham describes that new work as like a mix tape from back in the day. That sense of all of these different generational lines that are being crossed and melded together, from Drake to Erykah Badu to the Flamingos to Summer Walker. So what happens in the audience is that you have people from these different generations enjoying and remembering their vibe from their time or their youth, which is quite, quite wonderful.”
Generations of all kinds of people gather together to experience the talent and artistry of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and breathe in the legacy of Alvin Ailey.
“I think that we will always find a way to continue to resist ignorance and intolerance,” says Battle. “We have to be about that with the work that we do, because that’s what Alvin Ailey was all about. And yes, there will be set setbacks, as there often are, but I think, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater engagement runs through Feb. 12, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, with four different programs scheduled: Season Premieres (Feb. 7 & 10); Gala (Feb. 8), Modern Masters (Feb. 9 & 11); All Ailey (matinees Feb 11 & 12). Tickets are $49 to $149. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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