Now half a century old, Alvin Ailey's tour de force dance piece, Revelations, still has strong political resonance and still elicits a rapturous audience response every time it's performed. One can only imagine how dazzling the piece must have been when it premiered in 1960, at the height of the civil rights movement. In its original form Revelations was an ambitious and sprawling work. It clocked in at more than an hour, and attempted to document several centuries of history from slave plantations to sharecropping. At that time it had no real antecedents in the dance world. In 1962 Ailey whittled it down to three sections, forming a seamless allegory about faith and the African-American church lineage. That year it toured the US and quickly became the best known modern dance piece in the world.
Since then, Ailey's tale of spiritual deliverance remains largely unadulterated. The first part, "Pilgrim of Sorrow," is about slavery and suffering, as conveyed through a spiritual sung in the background, "I've Been Buked." A heavy brown color palette and dense choreography — the dancers move through a world that seems to be compressing — underscore the emotional subtext of the piece. It's about anguish, but it's also about a willingness to survive, and the two sections that follow — a baptism and Southern church revival — turn past pain into grit, endurance, and soulfulness. Revelations mixes religious traditions with modern idioms in a way that's unique to the black church, and offers coded political messages for those willing to look for them. Ailey, in fact, envisioned "the audacity of hope" long before President Obama found words for it: Revelations begins dusky brown, but ends in searing bright yellow.
Next week the Ailey dancers will perform Revelations (or parts of Revelations) no less than seven times during the group's annual run at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, which also will feature excerpts from Blues Suite — Ailey's 1958 genuflection to the juke joints of his Texan home town — the Charlie Parker tribute "For Bird — With Love," and several other flagship works from the choreographer's oeuvre. This year's tour also includes two premieres that will showcase the dance troupe's stylistic range. The first is Go in Grace, Hope Boykin's homespun narrative about a working-class family, featuring music by the all-woman a capella sextet Sweet Honey in the Rock. The second, Festa Barocca, is a large-scale baroque piece conceived by Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, with music by Handel and Bach. Designed as a rather grandiose fiftieth anniversary commemoration, Festa premieres the last three nights of Alvin Ailey's six-day run, on a program that culminates with Revelations. It should be an interesting juxtaposition. March 3 through 8. $36-$62. CalPerfs.berkeley.edu
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