Master + Work
The Master: Alvin Ailey
Born in a small Texas town in 1931, Alvin Ailey began his dance training at age eleven by being exposed to classical, social, and folk dances, as well as new techniques of modern dance.
Ailey began his career during a period when opportunities for African American dancers like himself were severely limited. Ailey wanted to create a company that allowed African American dancers to display their talents and to express their experiences and heritage. Decades later, when he formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it was one of the first professional companies where dancers of all races and backgrounds were welcome.
What to look for: Ailey’s Style
Alvin Ailey’s dance style developed from his memories of growing up in the South and his careful observation of human movement. Ailey then assembled movements to create dances that were uniquely his own. When watching Ailey’s choreography, look for movements that show:
- turning, bending, and jumping across large distances
- contracted muscles, creating forceful, angular lines
- expressive hand movements
- influences from African American culture
The Work: Revelations
Throughout its history, Ailey’s company has explored themes of African American heritage and culture. It is best known for Ailey's masterwork, Revelations—a work which has been in its repertory since its creation in 1960. More than 23 million people in 71 countries have seen Revelations – more than any other modern dance work.
Ailey was only 29 when he created Revelations. Drawing on the his childhood recollections of people, places and experiences in and around his rural church, and using traditional African American blues, work songs, and spirituals as his musical inspiration, Ailey tells the story of African American faith and persistence from slavery to freedom.
Revelations is divided into three sections; each includes several dances representing different aspects or experiences in Baptist worship:
- “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” in which the dancers portray people who hope for salvation in spite of life’s difficulties. Watch for the movements that suggest reaching toward heaven and being pulled back to earth.
- “Take Me to the Water” depicts Ailey’s own baptism—the ritual in which one becomes a full member of the congregation—which took place in a pond behind his church. Watch for movements suggesting rippling water.
- "Move, Members, Move” begins as a church congregation gathers to worship. Watch for movements that suggest gossiping conversations, discomfort on a hot day, and the hope of salvation.
Ailey described the memories that inspired Revelations as “blood memories” because they were so strong he felt they were part of him as much as the blood that ran through his veins. To better understand this important work, click ahead to Learn More.
Going to see Revelations?
Millions of people—including Oprah and the Obamas—have seen performances of Revelations. Have you? This article is just a brief overview; if you want to know even more about this amazing man, his company and his work, we recommend this extensive performance guide from Cal Performances at UC Berkeley.
Apart from getting a handle on the basics, be sure to think about the role you play in the performance. Check out this video from the Ailey company detailing how the audience affects the dancers during Revelations.
What? You’ve never been to a dance performance? Then grab our Field Guide to Dance so you know what to expect!
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has lots of resources to help you learn about Revelations. We’ve picked just 3—there are many more on the company’s Web site.
1. Watch the Video of excerpts of Revelations. (You may want to watch it several times!) Look for the evidence of Ailey’s signature style, like—
- the dancers’ use of space– how they travel over distance, use different levels or heights, and create different shapes
- the lines of the body – including creating shapes, but also the way muscles are contracted and released
- how the dancers represent the physical world (like rippling water) and tell stories, individually and as a group.
Be sure to also consider the role does music plays in Revelations. How did Ailey weave different types of music – blues, gospel, and work songs—to create a picture of the African American experience in the American South? Can you identify any of the music? (Here’s one to listen for: in the section ‘Take me to the Water,’ strains of the well-known traditional spiritual Wade in the Water is heard as the baptism is underway.)
Finally—think about the production elements, like costumes, lighting and props. For example, in the section ‘Take me to the Water’, dancers are in white. What might that symbolize? How is the water represented? In the section ‘Move, Members, Move!’ is set in a rural church, where dancers in yellow costumes enact a church service—how do they use props and lighting to create the idea of the church space?
2. Visit the 50 Years of Revelations timeline at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Web site. In particular, read the entries for 1962 and 1968. Think about the importance of performing such a uniquely American work for – and with—people from other cultures and backgrounds. Does its message and meaning change in different communities? What themes in Revelations are ‘universal’?
3. Watch this short documentary, created in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Revelations. After viewing, take some time to reflect. Why is this work considered so important? What three things stand out to you about the history and significance of the piece? What obstacles did Ailey have to overcome to create such a landmark work?