Alvin Ailey, Blackness, And The Future of Abstract African-American Art

Just watched Revelations for the first time.  I am very impressed; I can imagine that in the sixties a young boy from rural Texas was not supposed to go to the big city and revolutionize African-American dance and forever change the way that Blacks, ballet, abstract art, dance and theater are perceived.  Half of the patrons in the audience were White, which goes to show you just what type of influence and respect Alvin Ailey, Judith Jamison, the dance company, and the story line have received over the years.

But what struck me as interesting was not Revelations itself, which is a quick, short, brief but powerful tale of fighting the demons that oppress us, redemption, salvation, and our life long quest to be in the presence of God.  What fascinated me is how much dance has changed since then and how members of Alvin Ailey’s Dance Theatre are still creative today, 50 years after the impact that Revelations made on the art scene back in 1960.  

The first presentation was Anointed, whose choreography was done by Christopher L. Huggins.  I still do not know what it was about, but the first scene we see a male dance positioned exactly 3 quarters of the distance from the right of the left stage and the light comes on, then it goes off.  The next thing we see is a dance run from one side of the stage and disappear on the other, then from that other side back to the first side, then again.  I thought I was watching one of those high concept Hype Williams music videos.  It was a fascinating way to get the audiences attention and keep them engaged.

The second presentation The Evolution of A Secured Femine, which was choreographed by Camile A. Brown.  It wasn’t as visually stunning at Anointed, but it did tell an interesting story about sexual politics.  It was just one dancer and a chair; the dancer had on a costume in which one side of her was male, the other female.  There was a lot to think about, and if you trying too hard to figure it out you would miss the concept entirely.  The third, and final presentation before Revelations, was The Hunt.  It was nothing but male dancers, I’m not sure what you call what the men were wearing, but they were like skirts, but for men that came all the way down.  I would say that they were robes, but the men did not have any top on.  The choreography was interesting, but I don’t know what The Hunt was about.

It made me think about contemporary dance, and Black art in general.  Where is the abstract, high concept, cerebral, stream of consciousness Black art these days?  Do I have to go to New York City to find it?  Do I need to visit Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta or some Black Mecca to find it?  I used to find it in hip-hop music, but it is no where to be found.  In fact if you wanted high art, all you had to do was turn on the radio, and you would hear something abstract; it may have been funk, it might have been rhythm and blues or it ever may have been gospel, but it was always there.  Turn on the radio anytime within the last 15 years though and there is nothing but the same garbage all day long.

The only real profound thinker we have in the mainstream is Kanye West; and I do not even know what he is talking about anymore and I doubt that he does either.  His stuff is so dark I would rather find someone to listen to.  There are a few rappers that bring some of that high concept stuff into their delivery, although I do no necessarily agree with what they are saying they do have some interesting styles; Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Drake and a few others.  

Alvin Ailey wanted to show the world that Blacks knew high art, they could be accepted and they were just as creative as anyone else, and he was successful in proving that point.  But are there other thinkers as profound and creative as he was that are not already part of his Dance Theater?  Somehow it feels as though the evolution of dance simply stopped with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and that it never progressed or caught on anywhere else.  

Then again that is probably a profoundly ignorant assessment to make.  I am sure that there are thousands of dancers, creative and unique in their own way, doing their own thing.  There is the Dance Theater of Harlem, which was founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, for example.  Today’s youth need to know that Black art is more than just what they hear on the radio and what they see on BET, VH1 Soul, or TV One.  It is more than Street Lit (Urban Fiction).  It is more than Tyler Perry or Spike Lee; you have to go beyond the mainstream to find examples of Black art that are as obvious as what you can purchase on bootleg or for $20 at WalMart.  You have to spend real money, and take out some real time and sit down and allow yourself to be immersed into true art.  

There is nothing wrong with spending $50 to see a pop artist perform his latest hit, if that is what you are into. But there should be a sense of balance and perspective; parents have to raise their kids in the right way and drag them to these shows whenever Black theatre is in town.  Then again they have to like it themselves, I am 38 and a lot of my peers could care less about Alvin Ailey; to them it is bourgeois, pretentious, out of touch with what they are going through.  But it does exist, but it is so damned frustrating when you go to a Black performance and the majority of the audience is White and all of the cast members are Black.  It would seem as though something is wrong with that picture, but then again, it is the same thing if you were to go to an NBA basketball game, or if you were to attend the US Open or saw a jazz performance.

There is a disconnect between high culture in the Black community and the Black community in which you would think that it serves.  It doesn’t really serve the Black community at all; there are a few Blacks that are already dropping $1,000 a month on an automobile payment that can afford to put on their fancy clothes, which often cost more than a poor Black person’s entire wardrobe, that think nothing of spending $100 to get a front row seat to watch a performance.  Then there are the rest of us; I had to pay $60 to sit in the back row next to the “orchestra” (which in this case was an audio recording).  Anointed included a song  from Moby; most people know Moby as someone that Eminem used to make fun of back in the day.  Whoever thought I would pay money to see Alvin Ailey’s Dance Theater just to find out about another song from Moby, whom I already like …

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