50 Years Later, ALVIN AILEY Continues to Explore the African American Experience

50 Years Later, ALVIN AILEY Continues to Explore the African American Experience

Pictured: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company members. Photo courtesy of the Auditorium Theatre. 

For more than 50 years Alvin Ailey has provided a platform for African American dancers to tell our stories and experiences that encapsulate the tumultuous battles and jubilant moments that life presents. Today, these stories transcend on stage in a universal language that is deeply rooted in the African American culture. Opening night of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater was filled with anticipation and excitement. I watched scores of families proudly escort their children through the doors of the theater, to see what will be a memorable lifetime experience. It is an opportunity to show young dancers who were present in the audience that the possibilities are endless and to give people a sense of renewed hope.

The show opens with choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s DEEP. The music behind this story is guided by the vocals of the Ibeyi twins. It is a culturally rich, sultry soul vibe that is laced with spiritual nuances. Everything about this movement felt familiar and enchanting. This movement spoke to the blurred lines we navigate to find clarity within ourselves, those we love, and our desire for spiritual balance. The music of the Ibeyi twins, paired with the choreography of Bigonzetti, evokes an out of body, soulful experience for the viewer. I was easily transported by this talented company into this seductive, yet spiritually divine sanctuary that awakens and restores the soul.

Then there is WALKING MAD, choreographed by John Inger. This piece is masterfully disturbing, yet mesmerizing to witness. The company performs this piece with a ubiquitous wall. The wall seems to be symbolic to the insanity that life sometimes bestows upon us, or perhaps an insanity that may be self-induced. The wall is both a place of refuge and a defined space that barricades and entraps. Unforeseen barriers, haunting shadows and obscure breaks in the music, play a riveting role in one scene. This woman seems to be fighting an obscure form of isolation where the wall boxes her in, forcing her to face the darkness of her shadow. A man suddenly appears from the wall and joins her. They become entwined with each other, but his presence soon becomes overbearing, further suffocating the woman in the confined space. Suddenly, more men come. The men begin to multiply over time, confining the space in the woman’s life. The music is disrupted, and faintly plays in the far distance, but as soon as she finds a way out, it erratically resolves to full sound.

The ending of WALKING MAD is just as daunting, with its undertones of loss and heartache. A man seems to be pleading with his love to move on from this dark place of sorrow. She tries, but she cannot relinquish her sadness. He tries numerous times to move her forward, but she continues to return to this place of grief. Inevitably, he is brought to his breaking point in the relationship, and eloquently scales the wall and leaps to his demise. The audible gasp from the audience was deafening. Before I knew it, I had levitated slightly out of my seat to catch him. This scene, resurrects an immediate sense of helplessness because nothing can be done to save this man. It all happens in this sudden, yet slow movement. Often this is how tragedies intrude upon our life. They invade us in an abrupt, yet painfully slow manner.

For the finale, we are brought back to a peaceful calm, with REVELATIONS. It is one of Alvin Ailey’s signature performances. Harmony is restored, the company propels us through a rebirth of our soul. Akin to the Black church culture, the rituals of washing away the sins and stomping out the devil make way for new beginnings. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will undoubtedly leave you in complete awe of their ability to tell powerful stories through commanding and electrifying dance performances.

About author

Naima Dawson

Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.