I spent most of my day yesterday at the Walter Reade theater at Lincoln Center watching films about Alvin Ailey: rare footage of interviews and rehearsals with the legendary choreographer, and of him as a young dancer in the 50s and early 60s dancing with the equally legendary Carmen de Lavallade, along with later coverage of Judith Jamison and others dancing, newer PBS specials on the company, and even a couple of panel discussions with filmmakers, collaborative artists, and dancers who worked with Ailey. What a treat! The all-day event was co-produced by the company (AAADT) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in honor both of the company’s 50th anniversary and the start of Black History Month.
First off, there was a collection of vintage posters in the art gallery right across the hall from the theater. (top two pics above, taken by me.) There was also a little reception with complimentary wine. Complimentary strong wine (which, I hadn’t eaten much and, well, probably got carried away excitedly tweeting over seeing some of the dancers there — namely
Yannick Lebrun — wearing gold earrings in both ears and dressed very stylishly in one of those skinny scrunchy bubble-jackets, baggy jeans and bright red-soled sneakers — it’s always fun to see your favorite dancers outside of the theater, just dressed like ‘normal people’. Also there were Renee Robinson, Matthew Rushing, Vernard Gilmore, and Hope Boykin, and choreographer Robert Battle. Renee and Yannick both showed up to the church event they had last year and I love that both the newest company member and the dancer who’s been there the longest show up to these kinds of things).
Anyway, the first set of films consisted of a movie directed by Orlando Bagwell made for PBS called “A Hymn for Ailey.” I’d never seen it before, but it was a filmed version of Judith Jamison’s dance / theater piece for the stage, Hymn, which she choreographed for the stage not long after Alvin Ailey died (of AIDS, in 1989). I’d never seen that either and I wish the company would stage it again. It was filmed mainly in the church where Ailey’s funeral was held, the magnificient Saint John the Divine. Dancers danced to a series of spoken word pieces recited by playwright / actor Anna Deavere Smith, who was, of course, a very powerful presence in the film. At times she’d stand next to the dancer — at one point Renee Robinson — and speak about body image, as Renee danced her words, and interacted with her at the same time, at one point seeming about to lash out on a negative thought, as if she were a mirror. At another, she spoke about Ailey’s artistry as an excellent male dancer who’s name I didn’t know belted out the movement with great passion. Or, one of the parts that stayed with me for a while — Smith took on the voice of an African woman talking about how much easier it is to be “real,” to be oneself, back in Africa; how here everyone has to wear a mask to survive. It kind of reminded me of Invisible Man. Both the performance and the words were very moving.
(there was a panel discussion after the Bagwell film, including from right to left, company rehearsal director Ronni Favors, filmmaker Bagwell, Jamison, and Deavere Smith). Judith Jamison is so charismatic, I’m sure it goes without saying. No matter what she’s talking about, you just want to hang on to her every word.
But the biggest highlight of that program — of the day for me — was footage of Alvin Ailey rehearsing a female dancer, Donna Wood Sanders, for her role in Masekela Langage (depicting denizens of a bar, set simultaneously in 1960s race-torn Chicago and apartheid-era South Africa, or anywhere oppression exists). I can’t tell you how much I got from this and I really really wish companies would do this more — would show audiences rehearsals and give us a glimpse into the artistic process. He was telling her, you’re an older woman, you’re stuck, trapped in this bar, in this place, you can’t escape and your life is dreary but that doesn’t mean you’re giving up. And, as she’d do certain things in the choreography, like push her arms out and step backward, he’d say to her, “let me see you in a prison, trying desperately to escape, but you can’t.” And she’d do the movement in such a way that that’s exactly what you saw. It was brilliant. And so powerful. I sometimes wonder how much is lost when a choreographer like that dies, if the entirety of his rehearsal and notes on direction are not kept. Dancers should of course add their own interpretations, but not without reviewing the master’s directions again for guidance. Now I want to see this ballet again.
(photo by Steve Vaccariello, of Renee Robinson and Clifton Brown in Masekela Langage)
Also included in the programs I saw were an interview Harry Belafonte conducted with Alvin Ailey, vintage footage of dancers Carmen de Lavallade, James Truitte, and Ailey performing classic works by Ailey’s mentor, Lester Horton. I particularly enjoyed The Beloved, depicting a relationship fraught with tension but compassion that kind of reminded me of some of Ulysses Dove’s work. (A program later in the day included films of some of his dances, but unfortunately I couldn’t stay).
A final highlight of the day for me was watching vintage footage of Alvin dancing Porgy and Bess with Carmen de Lavallade. Learn about that story (originally an opera) and its history here. Ailey danced the part of the the man who threatens the crippled Porgy and seduces but mistreats Porgy’s beloved Bess. I’d never actually seen much of Alvin Ailey dancing and this was such a treat. As someone said in one of the films — I think it was Jamison but am not sure — “He WASN”T skinny!,” which made me laugh, but she’s right.
(image of Alvin Ailey by Jack Mitchell, taken from here)
He was a meaty man. And he had hefty strength and ferocity to his dancing, a virility that was simultaneously sexy and threatening and that I totally didn’t expect since, by the way he speaks and from what I’ve read about him, he seems to have been such a soft, gentle man, and given that most of the male characters he created in his ballets seem like soft, gentle men as well, full of vulnerability and sympathy. Plus, with the possible exception of Glenn Allen Sims, no one in the current company really dances like that. Not that that’s a bad thing – -just a different aesthetic.
I wish I could have stayed for the full day, but I went to ABT’s female choreographers program at the Guggenheim, which I’ll write about soon. This company always makes me so happy and inspired.