“I like this one!”
The little boy in front of me can’t stay in his seat anymore. His tiny shoulders have been shaking in rhythm with the music since the show started, and now, 20 minutes in, he’s up on his feet, raising his hands, big brown eyes sternly focused on the dancers in front of him while he dances furiously in place. With one quick glance down the row, you’ll see that every other child is shaking, too, their tiny heads swinging around while they clap and call out to the dancers, who are busy pushing themselves to every corner of the stage.
This is not your typical dance performance.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is brought to town every three years by STG Presents and, in addition to their scheduled performances, they do a series of educational outreach events like the lecture and demonstration I was lucky to see this morning. Alvin Ailey himself was on the forefront of arts education, so this dedication to children and different educational programs is perfectly in line with the values of the company.
It’s also a crucial way to motivate students of the arts. When I spoke to Robert Battle, handpicked by Judith Jamison (who was handpicked by Ailey) to be the third artistic director of the company, he explained how Alvin Ailey had influenced his own artistic development when he saw the touring company perform as a child. “I still think of myself seeing that performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and I think of how my heart opened. I think of that little black boy born in Jacksonville, Florida, bowlegged. My mom had to let my great-aunt and uncle raise me from 3 weeks old, and they set me on my way with braces on my legs. I think of all the people who reached out and made a difference in my life. Where I am now has to do with where I came from. I feel very much that this is where I’m supposed to be. Judith Jamison saw something in me that gave her hope for the future of the company. This isn’t just a job—it’s more of a calling.”
Mr. Battle is ready to bring the timelessness of art and expression to the forefront with this performance, which is a mixture of classical form infused with modern dance and jazz. The work is a history lesson of dance, and of the different styles Mr. Ailey pioneered and revered. When I asked Mr. Battle about the importance of seeing this work in a culture that dares to posit itself as post-racial, he explained that the work is timeless, and always important. “Nothing in me says this work is dated. Ailey reflects our country; we’re not as post-racial as everyone loves to think, and we comment on that negative history, too. But dance is such a powerful expression of the human spirit. You see it everywhere, and there’s something galvanizing about physical expression that stays fresh because of the newness of the dancers.”
These dancers are evocative, and the effect is mesmerizing. I realized I had tears in my eyes halfway through the snippet of Revelations, not because it was sad, but because I was looking at hundreds of kids who were gaping at the dancers, not quite understanding the subtext but fully grasping the magnitude of this powerful piece. Dance is a shared experience. “In this day and age of technology,” Mr. Battle says, “I think we have to be reminded of that time we spend together in a theater having this universal experience together. There’s no replacement for that.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is performing at the Paramount Theater for this weekend only (April 11-13). Get tickets here.