When Alvin Ailey choreographed “Revelations,” a stirring suite of dances set to spirituals he remembered from his Texas childhood, his dance company was only two years old. Now, half a century later, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater still gets standing ovations for this seminal work about African-American faith and tenacity, from slavery to freedom.
The Ailey troupe has been celebrating the 50th birthday of “Revelations” throughout its current touring season. Here to mark the anniversary at McCarter Theater is Ailey II, the second company — a kind of junior varsity — of the Ailey enterprise. “Revelations” will share a program on Wednesday, May 4, with works by contemporary choreographers Donald Byrd and Sidra Bell.
Ailey, who died at age 58 in 1989, had a love/hate relationship with “Revelations.” The ballet is universally cheered wherever the company performs, so much so that it has an encore built into its final section. But though Ailey created other works of note, nothing in his career inspired the same kind of rapturous reception, from the public or the critics.
“It was frustrating to him for many years,” says Sylvia Waters, a former Ailey dancer and the director of Ailey II since 1975. “Finally one day, I heard him doing an interview. He said, `I guess I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that it is a wonderful ballet, and I accept it. The dancers like to do it.’ It was good to hear that.”
“Revelations” premiered on January 31, 1960, at the YM-YWCA in New York. Divided into three sections: “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water,” and “Move, Members, Move,” the dance follows a kind of spiritual journey from baptism through religious despair to joyous salvation. Though it is boldly physical and theatrical, the choreography is simple, direct, and intensely powerful. According to the Ailey company’s website, www.alvinailey.org, more people — some 23 million in 71 countries across six continents — have seen “Revelations” than any other work of modern dance.
That makes “Revelations” a major part of any Ailey dancer’s life. Waters was in the cast countless times during her dancing days. But despite the repetition, it always held meaning for her.
“I never got sick of it,” she says. “It would make me tired. But that’s a tired worth being. There were times, depending on what part I did, that it informed me about myself, about my beliefs. It informed me about humanity, about our place here on earth, what we expect, and what we want to share. It taught me generosity and how in the spiritual sense we are so connected to people. We’ve performed ‘Revelations’ all over the world, and people respond to the way it reveals how connected we are in the things that connect human beings — the despair, the sorrow, the joy. It’s not just mere empathy, but a very deep weightedness.”
“Revelations” sprang from Ailey’s “blood memories,” Waters says. “It came from his own experiences that had a profound effect on him. He never forgot them. To be able to articulate it in dance and theatrical terms, and have it understood by so many people who don’t speak the same language, is incredible. It’s the true universality of the dance vocabulary.”
Waters joined the Ailey company in 1968. She had first encountered the choreographer years before, when she was a 14-year-old student at New York City’s New Dance Group. “Over my developing years, I knew him. In the dance circle, you want to be around all these fabulous people,” she says. “So I would go to concerts by his company, and I loved them.”
Raised in New York, Waters was the only artistic person in her family — or so she thought. “I found many years after I’d been dancing that my mother, who had always loved dance, had auditioned for (choreographer) Katherine Dunham and got the job. But she had just gotten married and couldn’t tour,” she says. “So I thought, maybe it’s no wonder that I’m a dancer.”
Waters’ father was a social worker who worked with young people and directed a boys’ camp. Later in his life, he worked for New York City’s housing and recreation department and became skilled at landscaping.
The dancers in Ailey II come from all over the world. All are plucked from the Ailey School, which is housed in its own glass-walled building in Manhattan. Waters wishes she could employ more than 12 dancers. Competition for spots in the troupe, often a route into the main company, is tough.
“I look at their facility and their ability to project, not just physically but emotionally,” Waters says when asked how she selects dancers. “There should be a kind of hunger in them that they want to do this; have to do this. So you’re looking deep into their psyches as much as you can to see how much of themselves they are willing to reveal.”
The Ailey II dancers learn a repertory that is strong not just on works by Ailey, but by other choreographers as well. “We do a lot of pieces by emerging choreographers and more seasoned choreographers,” says Waters. “So the dancers really get as broad a cross-section as possible to help them develop style, technique, and to grow as artists.”
Life in Ailey II means lots of time on the road. Most members of the troupe hope to graduate into the main company, but there isn’t room for everyone, at least not all at one time. Some end up performing in other companies or in Broadway shows; others go into film.
All of them are taught about Ailey during their tenure with Ailey II. The choreographer died before any of them were born. “I tell them as much as I can about him,” Waters says. “It’s an incredible legacy. And with Judith (Jamison, the former Ailey dancer who has headed the company since his death and will retire this year) for the last 20 years, there is such continuity. Every day is a history lesson. It’s not just about doing his works, but in how you function as an artist, how you go about your life pursuits. You’ve got to have life if you’re going to have art, or dance. You can’t just do steps all the time.”
Jamison’s departure on July 1 will be the end of another era in the Ailey company’s history. Choreographer Robert Battle, who never knew Ailey, will take over as artistic director. Waters is philosophical about the shift. “I think it’s going to be an interesting, wonderful journey,” she says, “a wonderful continuity of this journey. I think Robert understands this company. Even though he didn’t know Alvin, I think he somehow did. It’s a good choice. So far, it has been a smooth transition and Judith is very supportive of him.”
Waters isn’t saying what her own future holds, only that she will stay through the transition. Meanwhile, whatever Battle’s plans are, he is sure to keep “Revelations” as a foundation of the Ailey repertory. As Jamison says in a video about the 50th anniversary of the work: “You sit and you watch that ballet, and you know what it is to be human.”
Ailey II, Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Wednesday, May 4, 8 p.m. The program will include Alvin Ailey’s signature work “Revelations,” to mark the work’s 50th anniversary. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.