The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is in its 43rd year of carrying out its founder's dream of a company "dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of black cultural expression."
This year also marks veteran dancer Renee Robinson's 20th year with the company. Robinson has become known for her role in the "Wade in the Water" section of Ailey's most famous piece, Revelations. "When I first joined the company, I didn't have any real goal," says Robinson. "I was so happy to be accepted. For the first five years, my only goal was to do well, accomplish my duties in the company, and enjoy myself."
This weekend, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater makes its fourth appearance at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) for four performances.
The GPAC performances will include six ballets, ending with Revelations. Although he created 79 ballets during his lifetime, Ailey, who died in 1989, maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. In all, more than 170 works by more than 65 choreographers have been performed by the company.
In the true spirit of repertory, the GPAC performances will include ballets by various guest choreographers, such as Carmen de Lavallade's Sweet Bitter Love, inspired by Roberta Flack's song of the same name. "Dance, for me, would have been impossible without Carmen de Lavallade," wrote Ailey in the late 1980s. Ironically, it was a solo recital given by de Lavallade in his high school cafeteria that inspired Ailey to begin dancing. Now Robinson portrays a woman who has found love too late in life to pursue a relationship.
"There are certain things that I will never forget that [Ailey] would say to the dancers: He demanded dancers to be ready on all levels, not just modern-dance techniques, because you have to be a tool for other ballets that are brought in," says Robinson. "And he would always say that steps don't mean anything unless you bring your person to those steps. You must do the steps correctly, but we must see who you are as an individual. In order to do that, you have to continue to learn about life and about who you are as an individual by reading about other things and other people."
Donald Byrd's Dance at the Gym is another ballet included in the GPAC program. The piece is based on West Side Story and explores how young people in a charged environment look at each other. "Ailey was never limited on the type of ballet he wanted: classical, modern, athletic, hip-hop, or African dance," says Robinson. She specifically notes that Dance at the Gym has required her to maintain a strict exercise, conditioning, and diet regimen to meet its high-energy demands.
"Ailey dancers are known for great bodies, so each generation has had its unique physical presence. But as dance has grown, choreographers have started to use each other's vocabulary. Dancers have had to step up with their lessons and practice and make their bodies able to handle the demands that choreographers are making in their ballets," says Robinson. "So they dance really fast, legs go really high. The body had to change. Dancers work on their bodies in certain ways now because choreographers want to see certain aesthetics, and designers build costumes around that. [This generation of dancers] picks up very quickly. They can do everything."
Rounding the guest-choreographer repertoire will be Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Shelter. Zollar choreographed Shelter in 1988 to confront the issue of homelessness and open audiences' eyes. "Part of the reason I did this piece is because I realized one day that I had stepped over a homeless person and I had just not seen him," writes Zollar.
Three of Ailey's own ballets, The River, Night Creature, and Revelations, round out the three-day schedule. The River (1970), set to Duke Ellington's first symphonic score written specifically for dance, combines classical ballet, modern and jazz dance, solos, duets, quartets, and ensemble dances to carry audiences along the river of life until it culminates in a grand finale of rebirth. In Night Creature, Ailey again uses Duke Ellington to juxtapose classical ballet and swing-time jazz.
"I don't have a favorite [ballet] because each one has taught me something different," says Robinson. "But Revelations belongs in a separate category because I continue to learn things about the ballet and Ailey and what he was trying to say. I continue to learn through the audience and through the younger generation who are performing it now and the lessons and experiences that they are having. It's so rich. It's just special."
Created in 1960 and set to traditional spirituals, Revelations is Ailey's story of childhood memories, Oriental theater, and his acquaintance with African-American writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. The piece gained the company worldwide fame and has made them goodwill ambassadors in part because of the universal popularity of the music.
"One of the promises of my company is that its repertoire would include pieces that ordinary people could understand. ... That's my perception of what dance should be -- a popular form wrenched from the elite," said Ailey about his work.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at GPAC Friday-Sunday, April 12-14, in four performances. For tickets, call 757-7256.