This Sunday I went to see Alvin Ailey American Dancer Theater at City Center. It’s the 50th anniversary of its landmark piece, "Revelations," created by the company’s founder, Ailey, who died of AIDS in 1989. And each night of the company’s month-long stay they’re staging the work.
It’s obvious why, and it has much more to do with than an anniversary. (Anyway, the piece is on almost all Ailey programs each year.) "Revelations" is marvelous, a deepy resonant work that tells the story of African Americans through a mix of Hebrew bible imagery, Christian baptismal evocations and the black spiritual struggle and rebirth. Critics today often can’t get past the whiff of glib spiritual uplift–and, one assumes, the immense popular appeal–but if there ever was a dance piece that trepid audiences could embrace, it’s this.
The accessibility is not something that only I’ve noticed, either. It’s the central point made by the company’s director, Judith Jamison, who’s led the group since Ailey’s death. In a short film clip that screens before each "Revelations" performance, Jamison describes the work’s main themes. She says that while the piece is rooted in African American history, it is not for African American’s alone. “You watch that ballet," she says, "and then you know what it’s like to be human.”
It is hard to disagree. In fact, what struck me most was not only "Revelations"’ universality, but how that universality is built from so many composite cultures. The Hebrew bible is, naturally, a boon for this work, as it has always been to African Americans. But Christian rites and Jesus’ story of redemption are also central too. And I am sure there are many more cultural borrowings that simply went over my head.
The amalgation of different cultural tropes, however, does not mean that "Revelations"–and by extension, African American culture generally–is second-hand. Not at all. One need only notice the presence of African dance processionals to see there is plenty in "Revelations" that’s indigenous to Africa. But there’s a less obvious lesson to learn from the work’s universality. And that is that every individual culture–Jewish included–is so deeply indebted to the many that surround it. A culture’s uniqueness comes not from its stroke of brilliant insight or originality, but in the way it subtly molds, mixes and amends the cultures it rubs up against.
That is why "Revelations" is so widely adored. We see a vivid picture of the African-American experience: the suffering, the struggle, the achievement. And we are reminded that we are both ineluctably apart, yet somehow a part of, that story.