Tragedy and Triumph in Alvin Ailey’s “Lazarus” and “Revelations”

Originally published in Piedmont Post on May 15, 2019

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus,” Photo by Paul Kolnik

What does it mean to be black in America? “Lazarus,” the centerpiece of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s 2019 program performed at Zellerbach Hall in April, shines artistic light on some uncomfortable truths about a people uprooted, marginalized and continuously struggling for a place in a land they still consider their own. Theirs is the world of barking dogs, police sirens, hands clasped in prayer, or undulating like fields where they toiled, day after day. They are, as the title of one of the numbers describes it, “black men in a white world.”


Staged by esteemed hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, “Lazarus” is a risky undertaking: it refuses to merely entertain and doesn’t offer clear answers to the questions it poses. It surrounded the audience with glimpses of oppression and danger through which ecstasy occasionally pushes through, a flower in asphalt’s crack. The ballet is conceived as an odyssey, with a central male character, danced by Daniel Harder, guiding the audience through the hour-long epic of the African-American experience.


Co-commissioned by Robert Battle, the company’s artistic director, and Cal Performances in 2018, “Lazarus” is also a tribute to the company’s legendary founder. Like the biblical Lazarus rose by Jesus, Ailey, who died from AIDS before his time, is resurrected in each performance of the company he had founded half a century ago.


That Alvin’s genius lives on after all these years is as astounding as it is obvious. Every Alvin Ailey’s dancer is a star: passionate, inventive, real. They are easy to follow, even if the road on which they take us is far from pleasant.


In the score by Darrin Ross, brilliant music is interspersed with weeping, whispers, gun shots and heavy breathing, as well as spoken word, at times fragmented and tortured. The choreography is based on Philadelphia GQ style, where intricate footwork is contrasted with sparse upper body movements. In the unfolding drama that has all qualities of a nightmare, where performers kneel, crawl, or are dragged across the stage, occasional virtuoso dance sequences remind us why the Alvin Alley company is considered a tour de force of contemporary ballet.


The ballet finishes with a depressed coda: in the centuries-long African-American journey, a happy ending remains elusive. Whatever progress is achieved can be undone at any moment. “Lazarus” is thus, at once, a tale of resilience and despair, of hope and anger, of trying to forget and, instead, only sharpening the memory. It is as complex and challenging as life itself. The standing ovation, in which the Zellerbach audience reward- ed the artists at the end, offered evidence that they succeeded in what they set out to achieve.


“Lazarus” was followed by “Revelations,” the company’s classic dance piece that brings together stories lived by the dancers on the stage, to the complete enchantment of the audience. A dazzling exploration of emotions and cultural realities set to African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues, “Revelations” has been performed thousands of times across the globe since its premiere in 1960, becoming a cultural treasure. Closing every Alvin Ailey’s performance, “Revelations” is officially the most widely seen piece of modern dance ever.


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ “Revelations” Photo by Paul Kolnik

In “Revelations,” the emotion al range is broad: compositions like “Wade in the Water,” an illuminating take on a baptismal ceremony, stand in contrast with the brooding “I Wanna Be Ready,” a stunning male solo performed by Yannik Lebrun, one of the today’s most prominent dancers. Part of Ailey’s choreographic technique is mixing elements from differ- ent dance styles – jazz, popular, ritual and social dances. It makes “Revelations” a celebration of diversity and multiculturalism that Ailey both envisioned and helped usher 50 years ago.


You can easily tell a dancer who’s enjoying his time on stage, and in the world of Alvin Ailey, those are the only kind. The artists’ sense of music is astounding; their movements precise yet natural. Many have worked with the company for more than a de- cade and are unapologetically Ailey in their spirit, with the emphasis on engaging the audience and on celebrating the power of the community to stand against destructive and polarizing forces.


Returning to their annual residency at Cal Performances for the 50th time, Alvin Ailey’s Dance Theatre has given the audience a chance to witness the evolution of a masterpiece that, in the words of the New York Times, “becomes brighter, its brilliance more memorable, every year.”

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