If there is such a thing as “blood memory,” as the late choreographer and company founder Alvin Ailey seemed to think, then it would be an impressionistic thing in the extreme. It wouldn’t tell stories with developed characters. It wouldn’t complete thoughts with explicit meanings or messages. It would suggest and evoke, tease and evade. It would, like its namesake, simply, powerfully… flow.
For African-Americans now living, that memory would surely gather, like faithful along a riverbank, around the long, painful struggle for civil rights – of being pressed down and sometimes lifted up, of losing heroes to billy club and bullet, of marching arm-in-arm into the future singing songs of belief from the past, of running and running and running, and most of all, of dying and rising again, like the man called Lazarus in the story your grandmother told you about Jesus.
Such are the thoughts that come to us at the Kennedy Center as we’re drawn into Lazarus, a triumphant two-act dance work created by Philadelphia hip-hop icon Rennie Harris. Still, borrowing across decades of African-American experience in a tribute to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary, hip hop is only the beginning.
Last night’s gala opening-night performance raised $1.1 million for scholarships to support young dancers who couldn’t otherwise afford to study at the company’s school in New York City. It also featured remarks from Robert Battle, only the third artistic director in these six decades, as well as from a young dancer from Washington now living her dream. The performance of Lazarus and early Ailey favorite Revelations was the first of seven showcasing a variety of works at the Kennedy Center.
“We’re here all week,” Battle joked from the podium.
For those who hadn’t caught its premiere in New York last August, Lazarus was certainly the big draw, and it repaid both effort and investment by surprising, delighting and challenging from start to finish. It was not, at any point, a biographical piece about Alvin Ailey, who died from AIDS at only 58 in 1989. It was not, at least explicitly, about the civil rights movement, though several sound references (police dogs barking, firehoses roaring) were directed to the marches that helped set a population free.
The dancing reached back from hip hop (specifically from “GQ” and other forms associated with Philadelphia) beyond the national “breakdancing” craze to the movements of Africa and the Sunday night bonfires of American slavery in places like Congo Square in New Orleans. For its “sampling’ – snatches of music edited into, onto and over each other – Harris chose skillfully from spiritual and gospel, from jazz and rhythm and blues, traveling often from the elegant nightclub to the earthy urban street. Certainly the 20th century was Ailey’s lifetime, and it was the soundtrack of so much he created in dance; yet again and again, the impact is placeless and timeless, verging on the eternal.
There is a lot of recorded speaking in Lazarus, but like the music, it is sampled in intriguing ways – bits of storytelling, pieces of Beat-sounding poems, even a final short stretch of Ailey’s own voice talking about blood memory. By the end, human speech is music, nothing more but nothing less. All become a tone poem by way of painting, with a fearless assist from James Clotfelter’s very dramatic lighting, Mark Eric’s costumes and Darrin Ross’s sound. We hope the Alvin Ailey company will be performing Lazarus for at least another 60 years.
Closing the gala program, Revelations was a sheer delight. If the African-American church was suggested in Lazarus, it beat excitedly at the heart of Revelations. In 1960, Ailey understood that “Negro spirituals” were one of the few ways white America connected with black America on some otherwise unlikely level, thanks to records and movies, and he crafted an irrepressible act of choreography around the rising-falling-rising emotions of a Sunday service.
Revelations has three “acts” – the mostly somber, respectful opening titled Pilgrims of Sorrow, the baptism-centric Take Me to the Water, and the dazzling, swaying, foot-stamping, hand-clapping finale unambiguously called Move, Members, Move.
Compared to church and choir scenes in many white-made Hollywood movies beginning in the 1930s, the fact that the entire piece flows with respect and grace and love, without a cartoon grin in sight, is worthy of notice. And the fact that the Ailey company is color-blind when it comes to its dancers means that African American, European and Asian artists get to share equally in the workings of the Spirit.
At evening’s close, as Sunday-best ladies in yellow dresses, yellow hats and yellow fans gather before a huge round sun and are joined by men in sleek black pants and yellow vests, the almost-slow “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” begins to churn upward and outward – until everyone of every skin color and every religion is drawn into the same bosom together.
That, along with knowing they’d have to perform the number again after curtain calls, was clearly what Alvin Ailey had in mind from the start.