Alvin Ailey’s Revelations: An Experience Worth Repeating
A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student shares her perspectives on this year’s performance — and her joy of discovery with each viewing of this modern classic.
By Kari Lindquist
Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater, Carolina Performing Arts’ longest-running artistic partner, performed two separate programs at Memorial Hall on May 3 and 4 — but both featured the company’s classic closing piece, Revelations, an experience worth repeating. Repetition allows audiences to search for what’s new, what details stand out and how are they different than the last time.
Revelations was choreographed by Alvin Ailey and premiered in New York in 1960. He drew on African American cultural heritage and memory describing it as “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.” He used the idea of “blood memory,” that events are remembered in the body across generations, passed down by blood. Memory and repetition are central to the piece and it has been performed consistently across the world from the time of its premiere.
Before beginning as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I taught a program at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago with elementary and middle schoolers connected to the matinee performance by the Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater. Some of my students saw the performance multiple times over the course of the years and I asked them each time, what surprised them? My students even came to expect to be surprised and thus brought to the performance both what they remembered and the craving to notice something new.
There’s so much to enjoy in Revelations, from the smallest gesture to the skill and athleticism of the dancers. My favorite part is in the opening movement of “I’ve Been Buked” — the hand flick on unaccentuated beat in the music that is added last to the iconic formation associated with Ailey and Revelations. I remember this gesture and anticipate it, but the moment when it happens still surprises me.
This time, I was surprised by the rapidly shaking hand gesture used in Cry, right before Revelations, and that I remembered in “Fix Me, Jesus,” danced beautifully by Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun. I was thinking that with how quickly this small gesture moves, it must be hard for the dancers to control it exactly and that each time must be spontaneous and slightly different. Even if only by one or two shakes or with how quickly they happen, the gesture would be difficult to recreate the same way each time even on tempo with the music. I found myself trying out the gesture by trying out the shake in my own hand as I walked across campus after the performance and thinking that not only is it different across the differently choreographed pieces, it must vary across dancers and unique performances. Although the recorded music used for Revelations is the same each time, the element of live performance lends itself to the spontaneous, even in the often-repeated choreography and the way the rhythm is conveyed.
When Ailey talked about Revelations, he even mentioned the music even more than the choreography. The music of Revelations, curated by Ailey, comprised of traditional spirituals. The texture of the vocal lines resembles the way the choreography allows individual dancers’ strengths to stand out and blend into the ensemble. Many of the tracks have sparse instrumentation highlighting the choral sound with limited percussive instruments. Additionally, the recording of Revelations includes Billy Porter as one of the singers, now recognizable from his role on the series Pose among his other accomplishments.
A favorite number of my students, “Wade in the Water” brings out props at a midpoint in the performance. The song was used as a way to give advice during the Underground Railroad that in order to not be tracked, those escaping enslavement could walk through water. The song seemed innocuous to those unaware of its secret meaning. This reflects the “double-consciousness” of Black Americans that W.E.B. DuBois has described; the layers of meaning draw on a rich cultural heritage and lend themselves to new understanding in their repetition.
Whether you’ve never seen Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater or if you’ve been to every performance, there is more to enjoy with each repeated viewing of Revelations. From the choreography and the music to the individual expressions of the dancers in the company, Revelations makes repeated viewing valuable. Each performance can reveal a new aspect of this treasured piece if you let it surprise you.
Kari Lindquist is a graduate student in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Music.
CPA looks forward to the return of Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater in the 23/24 season.