Freedom in the Flesh: A Reflection on Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”
AAADT in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Photo by Pierre Wachholder. link.
“The rhythms are very strong now. They sustain everyone in the room. All are moving. The music seems to be coming from inside the people as if by their movement they are liberating the sound from within themselves.”
Joseph Murray, Santería: African Spirits in America
Sitting in the sold-out theater we await the beginning of the production. The space is elegant but not extravagant, with neatly arranged sections of burgundy chairs leading the eye to a proscenium style stage paneled with lightly colored wood. This lack of ostentation—there is a decided absence of ornate crystal chandeliers or gilded ornamentation—perhaps primarily speaks to the theater’s relatively recent construction (during a time of national austerity). However, aesthetically it serves to focus the audience’s attention on the few explicit design elements in the room, the most prominent being the glass, vaulted ceiling and wave of wood cresting off the top of the stage, which serves to shower the audience with reflected sound.
Ailey II, the critically acclaimed youth wing of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has been touring for nearly fifty years. Tonight’s production centers on Alvin Ailey’s classic, paradigm altering “Revelations,” which he arranged in 1960. Anticipation for commencement of the night’s drama is palpable, evidenced by the overflowing crowd and the energy buzzing throughout the performance hall.
As a White theologian of Black Christianity—and one who is rather uncultured with regard to dance—I participate in the excitement circulating in the room, tinged with a sense of apprehension. Tonight’s performance is not about me or my experience, nor should it be, yet given my area of study, I feel compelled to capture the grace, artistry, and complexity of what I am about to experience. I have read numerous accounts of the intermingled beauty and horror of the Black American experience—and have observed the power of Black hope, joy, and sorrow within the Black Church—but what can prepare me for what is about to unfold?
When the time comes for “Revelations,” an energy spreads throughout the room. It is similar to the excitement one feels when the arrival of an old friend is imminent. It is clear that, for many, this is not their first viewing of “Revelations.” I identify with this energy, ready to be taken into Ailey’s signature celebration of Black life and culture.
Immediately, the spirituals of the first act, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” draw me in. The sweeping movements of the dancers, often reaching or pointing upwards, embody the indomitable spirits of those legally defined as chattel, who somehow found a way to maintain a sense of their dignity and humanity. Indeed, the “Invisible Institution” of the enslaved Black Church was founded because enslaved Africans intuitively knew both that their enslavers were lying about their subservient status. This man Jesus, who suffered like them, was not in league with those who sought to dehumanize them. Rather, he threw his lot in with the oppressed. Despite the beauty of what I am viewing, however, I come to question whether I ought to enjoy this performance. How can one enjoy a depiction of one of the worst atrocities in human history, especially one whose ancestors perpetuated the crime? This question unresolved, the second act begins.
“Take Me to the Water” is perhaps the most moving of the three acts. Not because it is noticeably more impressive or magnificent than the one preceding or following it, but because it speaks to the seemingly universal human desire for redemption. It answers the question posed in the first act—“Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man?”—by stating that if one is willing “wade in the water,” God will “trouble the water” and they will be made clean. The bodies of the dancers take on a kind of fluid quality, ebbing and flowing with the music, preparing themselves for the “long white robes” that are needed to be ready for the Lord. Then, a stark transition occurs about three quarters of the way through this act, from multiple dancers in elaborate costumes to a single person in a simple white outfit as “I Wanna Be Ready” plays. This new setting speaks to the intimacy, and terror, of standing alone before God. The sometimes prayerful, even obsequious, posture of the dancer in this final movement—which ends with the dancer’s body bowed low to the ground—demonstrates the beauty that can be found in humility, and even death, when this humility is an act of devotion rather than coercion.
“Sinner Man,” the first song of the final act “Move, Members, Move,” vindicates the humility and terror displayed at the end of the act previous. Speeding across the stage, and punctuated by acrobatic feats, the three opening dancers show that no amount of physical prowess can be used to escape the Lord, despite the singer’s repeated cries to “Hide me, hide me!” The good news, though, is that there is no need to hide. God’s grace is available, as signified by the simulated church service that takes up the remainder of the performance. And, though this service begins as a somewhat somber affair, it quickly picks up tempo and transforms into an embodied celebration of the fact that one’s soul will be welcomed into the “bosom of Abraham,” the fact that “I may be weak, but thou art strong” and “I’m going home to liberty.” As liberty is extolled in song, it is witnessed in the joyous movements of the dancers. To quote Anthony Pinn, these bodies have become a ritual space “in which the divine is manifest.”1
Overwhelmed by this celebration of Black joy and beauty, I was brought to earth by the context in which I witnessed it—St. Louis. This is the city where Michael Brown was murdered and left to decompose on the hot pavement, where Black and brown bodies are maimed and shot regularly in North City, where the first Black Circuit Attorney has unveiled the systemic racism in governance and policing, only to be told by the White mayor that her accusations are “meritless.” How can this supposedly progressive city celebrate the strength and beauty of Black bodies on stage, only to cut them down once the curtains fall and the performance ends?
Unfortunately, to welcome and applaud a celebration of Black liberation on stage, only to quash it in reality, stands in the long tradition of White liberalism that celebrates Blackness until any kind of concrete solidarity is required. What can be done? Fred Moten refers to Blackness as “mysticism in the flesh” that represents the possibility of the lysis of this world in service of the creation of a new, redeemed one. The question, then, that Ailey asks those of us who benefit from the status quo—after putting the power and poetry of Blackness on full display—is: “When will we welcome this redemptive power off of the stage and into our lives, our society, and our world?”
(1) Anthony Pinn, “Black Theology, Black Bodies, and Pedagogy,” Cross Currents
50 (Spring/Summer 2000): 1-2.