Black Joy goes viral on Dec. 2, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) kicks off its first-ever virtual season celebrating six decades of a modern dance masterpiece––“Revelations.” The work, born out of the Civil Rights Movement era is a testament to the amazing creativity born out of struggle and determination in the face of trials and tribulation.
Extending from Dec. 2-31, this AAADT season, in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic, will be unlike any other. Featuring a variety of special programs each available online for a one-week period and open to all, Artistic Director Robert Battle calls the season a tribute to transcendence in trying times. “Offered as a source of inspiration and unity, Ailey’s groundbreaking season will share special programs celebrating six decades of ‘Revelations,’ reinvent classic works by our beloved founder, and honor Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims, whose long and illustrious career exemplifies why the Ailey dancers are so applauded.” Highlighting some of this season’s offerings, Battle added, “I’m also thrilled to premiere choreography by members of the Ailey family, including Associate Artistic Director Matthew Rushing and Resident Choreographer Jamar Roberts, and share a series of topical conversations with some incredible people who I admire.”
Using the positives of the virtual medium, the AAADT season will be unlike any other as Battle engages the audience in unique ways peppering the online season with what are being called “Battle Talks”––conversations with people from the arts community, social activists, and, in honor of the celebration of “Revelations,” also people from the church community.
At the center of it all, of course, is the dance. This season continues a tradition Ailey started decades ago of giving gifted company members a platform to showcase their choreographic talent, two of the highlights of the season include the world premiere of Jamar Roberts’ “A Jam Session for Troubling Times,” as part of the centennial of jazz revolutionary Charlie “Bird” Parker and Matthew Rushing’s “Testament,” an innovative tribute to and reimagining of Ailey’s masterpiece created in collaboration with assistant to rehearsal director Clifton Brown and former company member Yusha-Marie Sorzano.
During a recent conversation Rushing spoke about his new work celebrating “Revelations” 60th anniversary, “Testament,” that premiers Thursday, Dec. 17 at 7:30 ET. Walking the fine line between paying tribute to an iconic work and speaking with the fierce urgency of now, Rushing says celebrating such an iconic work was daunting. “At the beginning I had to figure out what was my entry point. My first idea was to enter it through the music. I shared my thoughts with Ms. Jamison who passed on this music by Leon Bridges called ‘River.’ The music was rooted in the spirituals but it was expressed in a very relevant way that appeals to the younger generation.”
Of his two collaborators Rushing says, “I knew I wanted current or former company members who had the experience of dancing ‘Revelations.’” Just as rehearsals started, two life-altering events happened––first COVID hit, then the murder of George Floyd. “When we came back to rehearsals,” Rushing says, “we knew we had to pivot in terms of what we were creating. We couldn’t look the other way so we incorporated the kinds of things we were all feeling into the work.”
The result, Rushing says, is a work featuring 19 Ailey dancers that is infused with “Revelation’s” spirit of transcendent resistance and is a contemporary conversation with the ancestors. “Intentionally, we didn’t replicate any movement from ‘Revelations.’ We tried to continue the legacy, the spirit of it.” Rushing says the work references what he calls the four cornerstones of African American culture––‘Exodus’ with its biblical reference to peoples’ forced massive migrations of peoples, from the Children of Israel to those of the African Diaspora, Antebellum Slavery and our history of turning lament into hope, then Civil War/Civil Rights and, lastly our Afro-futurism “the culmination of our struggles with everyone achieving their highest selves,” he says, adding, “It’s a very layered story.” Fun facts. True to Ailey tradition, filmmaker Preston Miller, who shot the work, is a graduate of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, and Ailey dancers’ reflections about these trying times were incorporated into the lyrics of the songs composed by Damien Sneed and sung by Karen Mitchell that accompany the piece.
And that’s just one of the highlights of the AAADT’s 2020 holiday season that kicks off Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET with “Revelations Reimagined” opening night virtual benefit featuring excerpts filmed at Wave Hill Public Garden & Cultural Center, a spectacular jewel overlooking the Hudson River, to celebrate the work that sprang from what Ailey called the “blood memories” of his childhood in the Depression-era South attending services at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Texas. This free event will be streamed on various digital platforms and will include a spectacular virtual performance featuring Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and special guests, followed by a post-benefit dance party. Those festivities will be followed Saturday, Dec. 19, by a “Family Program: Revelations” Saturday, Dec. 19 at 2:00 p.m. that encourages viewers to clear a space in their home, wear comfortable clothing and prepare to learn excerpts of two sections of Revelations––“Wade in the Water” and “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”
And, that’s just a sampling of what promises to be a truly engaging Ailey season that also includes a Wednesday, Dec. 9, 7:30pm ET, program Celebrating Ailey stars Glenn Allen Sims and Linda Celeste Sims for their 25 years of exquisite artistry and bids a heartfelt farewell to the married couple (and new parents) that are the company’s longest tenured dancers. Another virtual bonus will include their chat with choreographer Ron Brown sharing personal stories and the professional journey that has touched Ailey audiences for decades. Other conversations that allow audiences to peak behind the Ailey curtain in a way that only online performances can, include AAADT artistic director’s “BattleTalks” with renowned trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, choreographers Jamar Roberts, Kyle Abraham, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and author, and activist and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson.
And that’s just a portion of what promises to bring joy to the world. For further information, visit www.alvinailey.org/virtualseason.