Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Revelation in Movement and Music

At the end of last week's performance of Revelations by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre I joined the rest of the audience at the NAC in the ubiquitous Ottawa standing ovation - a tradition which I abhor with all my being. But in this case the pure energy that this marvellous troupe gave off as they launched in to the joyous dance that Ailey created to "Rocka My Soul" more than 50 years ago had  me on my feet clapping and swaying along with the rest of the audience.

Indeed the whole evening, that had begun with Streams - another Ailey piece, was an energizing experience.  But the company, recently revitalized under new artistic director Robert Battle, doesn't rely on energy alone: the Ailey tradition of a solid ground in the techniques of ballet married to the modern, Broadway and ethnic dance forms was evident in all the dancing.  Ulysses Dove's Urban Folk Dance  -  two couples battle for power in a pas de quatres of tension and changing dynamics - was the strongest piece of dancing of the evening.  Linda Celeste Sims,  Michael Jackson Jr, Hope Boykin and Mathew Rushing brought an effortless sense of style and drama to the  ever shifting charged energies (there's that word again) of Dove's athletic choreography.

But the highlight of the evening was Revelations.  Back when I was working for Ballet2000 I had translated several reviews of this piece and my friend David had written about it when he saw the company in London.  This was Ailey's signature piece and uses gospel and blues to trace the role of faith in the black history of America.  No where is that sense of faith more strongly evoked than in the "Fix Me, Jesus" pas de deux.  Ailey said it was meant to convey the strength of the faith between a woman and her pastor.

As well as the dance the power and emotional appeal of Revelations is in the music. And in glancing at the programme I noticed that the arrangement of "Fix Me Jesus" was by Hall Johnson.  Johnson was a pioneer in preserving the praise songs of the slaves and raising them to the level of an art form.  He researched and arranged spirituals particularly for the various choral groups that he founded.  Perhaps the most famous was the Hall Johnson Negro Choir that sang in the 1930 Broadway production of The Green Pastures - and repeated their contribution internationally, on radio, television and in the film version of Marc Connelly's adaptation of Roark Bradford's Ol'Man Adam and his Chillun.

The play portrays episodes from the Old Testament as seen through the eyes of a young African-American child in the Depression-era South, who interprets The Bible in terms familiar to her.  It could be claimed that Connelly's play is demeaning to African-Americans and those opinions were voiced as early as the film's release in 1936.  But I recall when I first saw the film on television many years ago I was moved and touched by the dignity of Rex Ingram as De Lawd and the magnificence of the music.  The following clip begins the story of creation - a gentle Sunday school teacher explains to his charges that heaven was just like a local fish fry - with food for all and 10 cent cigars for the men.  And without facility I say it sounds a little bit like heaven to me!

Much of the "old time religion" that flavours The Green Pastures can be seen in the third section of Ailey's journey through the faith of his people.  The Day is Past and Gone has a tongue in cheek poke at dressing up in your "Sunday best" and Rocka My Soul is redolent with the joy and power of the prayer meetings and missions he would have seen as a child in Texas.  The performance in the clip below has a particular poignancy as it was part of the celebration of his life at New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine in April 1989.  His troupe bade farewell using his own vision of  the religion that had given him comfort and strength and, as is more than apparent, joy.

In writing of Spirituals Johnson said:
True enough, this music was transmitted to us through humble channels, but its source is that of all great art everywhere—the unquenchable, divinely human longing for a perfect realization of life. It traverses every shade of emotion without spilling over in any direction. Its most tragic utterances are without pessimism, and its lightest, brightest moments have nothing to do with frivolity. In its darkest expressions there is always a hope, and in its gayest measures a constant reminder. Born out of the heart-cries of a captive people who still did not forget how to laugh, this music covers an amazing range of mood. Nevertheless, it is always serious music and should be performed seriously, in the spirit of its original conception
Johnson's arrangements were sung by some of the great African-American singers in recital and he coached Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin and Shirley Verrett.  After his death Anderson said, "Hall Johnson was a unique genius.  For although he invented no new harmonies, designed no new forms, originated no new melodic styles, discovered no new rhythmic principles, he was yet able to fashion a whole new world of music in his own image."  Though I am not a dance expert the same could be said for Ailey in that his genius was not to invent new forms of dance but created a dance style drawing on ballet, modern, jazz, Broadway and eventually hip-hop.  He created a form of dance expression as unique as Johnson's music.

26 April - 1336: Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) ascends Mont Ventoux.

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David said...

Isn't it amazing how fresh and immediate Revelations still is. I can't imagine any Ailey performance of it NOT getting a standing ovation, though I agree with you that they tend to be granted to any old thing these days (especially among American audiences). Some things just make you rise to your feet almost involuntarily, and this was one.

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