Back in 1975, my wife and I got the opportunity to vary our traditional practice of seeing the American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet. We headed to Lincoln Center to enjoy some modern dance under the guidance of Alvin Ailey. Ailey was a transformative presence in the world of dance. Hard to believe that such a dominant figure in the New York City art world got his start in Texas in the Jim Crow era. Ailey, who grew up without a father, embraced African-American culture, influenced by the likes of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes. He incorporated Caribbean and African motifs in his work as well. He created a corps of dancers who were much more athletic than those found in traditional ballet troupes.
We were mostly excited to see the company's star performer, the radiant Judith Jamison, who was much the talk of New York. But the program we saw offered riches far beyond what Miss Jamison provided. That Saturday night the program opened with Blues Suite, a collage of blues songs and dances by Ailey.
Below: A clip from a recent performance of Blues Suite.
The troupe of dancers included the late Dudley Williams and Donna Wood, who was still a couple of years away from becoming a principal dancer for the company. Ms. Wood once said: "I have learned never to force a movement, but to arrive at it naturally." Her work was sublime and the audience was often left in rapture. In the early 1980s Miss Wood performed in Cry, perhaps her most famous piece.
Below: Donna Wood in Cry.
We saw Sara Yarborough in Cry that night as the second part of the bill. I appreciated that Ailey had set popular music that I knew well to dance. Cry includes a song from Alice Coltrane, dedicated to her late husband, legendary saxophonist, John Coltrane. It also includes a song by Laura Nyro, one of my idols, about whom there is an earlier blog post. It was typical of Ailey to create dances from the blues form and the jazz idiom, though he wasn't averse to pop music either. He created the piece for Judith Jamison as a tribute to his mother.
Below: A clip of Judith Jamison in Cry (poor quality), a photo of Sara Yarborough, and a clip of Judith Jamison on dancing and creating for Ailey.
The show concluded after intermission with the length piece set to the opera Carmina Burana. This is what everyone had been waiting for, as it starred Judith Jamison. Most everyone knows the "O Fortuna" section of the musical work, even if they can't identify its source. That section must have been in more hair-raising, apocalyptic moments from movies than just about any other! It's also been a complement to more than a few TV commercials. Judith Jamison went from her position as Alvin Ailey's principal dancer to taking over as Artistic Director for Ailey in 1989, where she spent the next two decades choreographing and directing and guiding young dancers. Jamison in recent years has been the recipient of Kennedy Center Honors and a White House tribute. She has been an iconic presence for all women of color in the arts. It was truly an honor to see her dance that night.
Below: A video tribute to Alvin Ailey and an amusing clip of the Ailey company taking the moves of average New Yorkers and giving them a creative interpretation. It was part of Ailey's vision to see the glories of movement wherever he went.