Masekela Langage and the Brilliance of Revelations

(photo of Alvin Ailey cast in Masekela Langage by Steve Vaccariello from Alvin Ailey website)

I managed to be sick for the last two weeks of December, so, horribly, I wasn’t able to go to as many Alvin Ailey performances as I usually do. Now, I’m depressed and feeling like I really missed out. Especially since I was just told how excellent the season finale was last night. Sob sob.

I did get to see all the major things though: the revivals (Blues Suite and Masekela Langage); the two premieres (Go in Grace and Festa Barocca), which I wrote about here and here and here; Suite Otis, a fun piece set to Otis Redding and comprised of jazzy all-male and all-female ensemble numbers and cute vignettes of couples in various stages of a relationship; and of course several Revelations.

(Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims in Suite Otis, photo by Paul Kolnick)

(Suite Otis, photo by Steve Vaccariello)

(Suite Otis, Paul Kolnick photo)

Blues Suite was Mr. Ailey’s first major dance, made in 1958, when the company began. It’s a bluesy piece that takes place in a nightclub, based on The Dew Drop Inn, an African American hangout in his Texan hometown, and consists of a set of female cabaret dancers and jazzy dancing men, who mostly perform in groups for the audience but sometimes dance together as if we, the audience, are getting not a “performance” but are eavesdropping on what goes on in a real club. The latter were my favorite parts.

With Masekela Langage, my overall favorite of the season besides Revelations, we get just that: a glimpse into another world, a troubling world.

(Steve Vaccariello photo, Masekela Langage)

And that’s what I liked about it so much. It was described to me as a “political” work (a totally loaded term!) portraying racial violence and oppression both in the era of South African apartheid (it’s set to music by the South African trumpeteer Hugh Masekela) and in 1960s Chicago. So, I expected to see all these scenes of white farmers burning black farms, of bands of white police attacking black men on the streets, etc. But it wasn’t.

It was just a portrait of regular people living during these times, spending time together in kind of a nameless, placeless parlor where people come together and just be. It’s peopled by different characters: the despairing junkie (danced sadly and brilliantly by Amos J. Machanic), the demagogue trying to rouse the crowd to positive action, the aggressively sexual and somewhat belligerently hyper-active young woman who commands men to dance with her then pushes them back down when she tires of them (danced very powerfully by Linda Celeste Sims), the kind of smarmy businessman / pimp and his lady, who acts more elegantly, trying perhaps to place herself above it all, and the man who bursts into the parlor, who has been shot, who, before lying down and dying, interacts rather violently with the crowd, who hysterically push him, and each other, around. They don’t know what to do for him; there’s nothing they can do. After he dies, they stare down at him for a moment, then continue acting the way they had before, stepping over the body, going on about their business.

(Linda Celeste Sims)

(Clifton Brown and Renee Robinson as smarmy man and lady)

(Kirven Boyd 🙂 )

(Jamar Roberts) All photos by Steve Vaccariello.

I liked it because it was so simple on the surface, and yet so complicated. It was kind of the opposite of that movie Slumdog Millionaire (has anyone seen that?) where the violence is so un-subtle, so overwrought, you’re on the edge of your seat throughout but at the end you almost want to laugh and ask if all that was for real.

Here, you get a sense of regular people living in conditions of violence, and under institutionalized racism that they’re powerless to do anything about. But they each have their own way of coping: drugs, picking fights, demagoguery, crime, violence, and at the end, looking the other way.

Unlike with Revelations, many in the audience didn’t seem too in love with this one, or just didn’t seem to get it — probably because it was about something unpleasant, the opposite of uplifting. “That’s not one of his major pieces, right?” and “Don’t worry, you’ll definitely love Revelations,” I think I heard about five or six times between the lobby and the bathroom line. (These are all people in orchestra, by the way.)

Of course many people connect more to Revelations (which I wrote more about here) than the other dances because it’s upbeat, uplifting, and about religion and spirituality — something most of us can relate to on one level or another. And very few can relate to the ways that poverty and living in certain social conditions and under certain political regimes can lead almost inexorably to violence and crime. Believe me — I worked as an appellate public defender for many years. VERY FEW GET IT.

But I think they also like Revelations because of the dance, the actual movement.  It’s so highly evocative of the image conveyed by the theme of the dance, and by the song. Instead of someone just kicking a leg up and lashing out with his or her hands to show anger and severe frustration, the Revelations movement contains images that actually look like what the dance is trying to convey — people raising hands toward the sky childlike, as if they’re all God’s children, then raising their arms birdlike, Amazing Grace-like as if lifting themselves out of wretchedness; in “Fix Me Jesus” a woman, lunging and bent over with a man behind her tapping on each shoulder like a higher being ‘fixing’ a woman, then propelling her into the air with his legs; in “Sinner Man” the men aren’t just jeteing around the stage, some of those jumps look like someone running, desperately trying to escape something, with the arms pushed back and up, bottom leg bent, the other out sprinting ahead.

(images by Paul Kolnick and Andrew Eccles respectively)

I think people react to the ability to convey what is trying to be conveyed through the very movement itself, to the uniqueness of the image and the way it is able to evoke so much. The dancer doesn’t need to make any kind of facial expression, doesn’t need to “act” at all, because the image is right there in the movement.

I think this is what sets Revelations apart from not only most of Ailey’s other dances, but from most other dances period.

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