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Flash Review 2, 11-30: A Gala to Celebrate
Out of the Cold and Trouble, a Hand from Alvin

By Vanessa Paige-Swanson
Copyright 2000 Vanessa Paige-Swanson

I have personally undertaken the responsibility of composing a new motto for our country. Thus far I have come up with the following: "America -- You Can't Beat it With a Stick," "America -- It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," and "America -- You Want Your Face to Freeze that Way?" Admittedly, I am even more bemused than usual by the U.S. of A., as I have just returned from the socially stellar and artistically resplendent Opening Night Gala of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at City Center (Run, don't walk, there are 38 more shows. Cross someone off your Christmas list and buy a ticket.).

Afterwards, as I trudged south on 7th Avenue, I was contemplating all of the weighty topics that such a once in a lifetime event inspires: Life, Art, Dance etc., until I was stopped dead by a huge mass of people on 42nd Street. "Ah," I thought warmly. "Fellow humans, my siblings in society." Eventually, my Ailey buzz subsided and I finally asked what, exactly, was the f-ing hold up already! "The magician," my victim explained. "He is frozen in a block of ice!" Now, it was raining and frigidly cold and we were not moving at all and the chances of life imitating "art" were better than usual, in that those gathered to watch could conceivably be frozen in their own personal block of ice at any time in the near future. Somehow, even with rain running down my back, it just made me appreciate Ailey all the more.

The Gala opened (after the usual fundraising chatter) with artistic director Judith Jamison, regal and slightly hoarse, promising that the dances would make us uplifted, educated, stir our hearts and help us find "a light shining within you that you didn't know you had." Following Jamison, Bill Cosby, gracious, generous and surprisingly gray-haired, acknowledged that the major contributors, though appreciated, had "not had an apartment in the projects." Cosby reminded the audience of the "real blood" sweat and tears that had formed the Ailey company in the past, and of the days when the audience asked "Can they really dance? I hope they don't fall down." They didn't.

An all-too-short excerpt from "Cry" opened the program. Ailey created the 1971 solo "For all Black women everywhere, especially our mothers." Wearing the signature white dress, Linda-Denise Evans beautifully realized the heartfelt, understated movement -- the deep plies, the defiant reaches and the exuberant leg extensions. She was joined at the finale by seven young students from the Ailey school, who (take it from one who works with children), were rehearsed within an inch of their lives and added a glorious note of continuity to this timeless dance. I only wish it had been presented in its entirety.

Jamison's "Double Exposure" was inspired by the score by Robert Ruggieri. Two men, Matthew Rushing and Glenn A. Simms, represent dual sides of one person, a concept that is further realized by the video backdrop. A trio of women, reminiscent of the Three Graces of Greek mythology, enhance the concept of personalities struggling within an individual. Jamison cleverly mixes frou-frou technology with startlingly technical lines; everything from Balanchine's "Apollo" to Nijinsky's "L'Apres-Midi D'un Faun" is referenced here, like when your mother put chopped spinach in your hamburger and you didn't even notice.

These dances were followed by intermission, during which I rubbed up against more rich people than I had since my undergraduate days at Hamilton College. A glass of champagne was $7, and I had brief visions of sipping with David Bowie (Iman was the other Honorary Chair). I had enough money if I used subway tokens, but somehow I doubted the bartender would accept them. Suddenly, I was back in my seat for "Revelations."

I first saw "Revelations" crouched in front of a black and white TV set in the late '70s. I was 9 years old, and, as a fledgling dance student who knew exactly how difficult it all was, sincerely doubted that these people were real. Of course, I also misheard the section entitled "Sinner Man" as "Cinnamon," and wondered what all the suffering was about, being a great fan of cinnamon myself. Did they prefer nutmeg? One could only wonder.

Tonight's "Revelations" was even more gorgeous and inspiring than expected. The company sincerely embodied the emotional text of the traditional gospel score, showing us that celebration and discipline, joy and remembrance can only truly exist together. Simultaneously, they expertly and seemingly effortlessly tacked the physical demands of the dance, making the challenging movement seem to be the obvious, organic extension of the sentiment. Yes, they face the audience shamelessly. Yes, they are often in the center, center, center of the stage. Yes, they use their considerable technical prowess without reservation. The results are wonderful.

When Martha Graham died, I was offended by the editorials that proclaimed that "Gee, she was just as important as Picasso or Stravinsky! Damnit, she was a real artist, that little lady! " I now have the same outrage over "Revelations." Like you, I was forced to read (or at least skim) "Julius Caesar," "Lord of the Flies," and "A Separate Peace." I needed to be able to recognize Michelangelo's David, Liberty Leading the People and that God-awful portrait of George Washington. I can affirm with conviction that Force x Distance = Those Iron Sinkers Scattered Over the Science Room Floor. Why then, do we not recognize Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"? Why can we not acknowledge one of the greatest modern dance pieces of all time? Why is it that an informed viewing of "Revelations" is not required for graduation from an American high school?

An early line from the score of Ailey's "Revelations" states that "There is trouble all over this world." Just as this line is sung, the dancers flip their palms, eerily lit, to the audience. Yes, regardless of race, there IS trouble all over this world. At the same time, a human hand is a human hand, available for all of us to grasp or leave behind. This is the enduring message of Ailey. This is his gift to us.

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