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Dancing Revelations$

Thomas F. DeFrantz

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195301717

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195301717.001.0001

Revelations 1962

(p.3) One Revelations 1962
Dancing Revelations

Thomas F. DeFrantz

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Revelations, the first major choreographic masterpiece of Alvin Ailey. When Ailey choreographed this dance in 1960 it was intended to be the second part of an evening-length survey of African American music that would show the growth and reach of black culture. He chose the spirituals, or sorrow songs, for this dance because it was designed to suggest a chronological spectrum of black religious music that would map out rural southern spirituality onto the dance concert stage.

Keywords:   Revelation, Alvin Ailey, choreography, African American music, African American culture, religious music, concert dance

This suite explores motivations and emotions of Negro religious music which, like its heir, the Blues, takes many forms—“true spirituals” with their sustained melodies, ring-shouts, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues — songs of trouble, of love, of deliverance.

— Ailey program note, Kaufmann Concert Hall YM-YWHA, 31 January 1960

Alvin Ailey intended for Revelations (31 January 1960) to be the second part of a larger, evening-length survey of African American music that would “show the coming and the growth and reach of black culture.”1 Designed to suggest a chronological spectrum of black religious music from the sorrow songs to gospel rock, Revelations mapped rural southern spirituality onto the concert dance stage.

For years American modern dance had searched for ways to connect with an expanded general audience. Ailey’s dance confirmed that folk materials, carefully mediated by principles of modern dance composition, could retain the immediacy of their sources in the transformation to concert dance. The largest implications of Ailey’s success for concert dance lay in the expansion of the audience that could enjoy its performance and the expansion of themes available to choreographers working in this idiom.

Determined to draw a lasting portrait of certain historical markers of African American culture, Ailey chose for Revelations the spirituals, or sorrow songs. Among the most prominent creations of nineteenth-century African American folk and the “prototype music of black religion” that evolved from black rebellion, spirituals release a central passion for freedom subversively contained in simple texts of Bible stories.2 Rampant with intimations of “liberation (p.4) —spiritual liberation in most, physical liberation in the rest,”3 the texts of spirituals typically align body control with power, escape, and liturgical rhetoric. For example, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” poses a rhetorical question of impending salvation: If God delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, won’t He deliver me from slavery? Performances of “Wade in the Water” in slave society commonly signaled an impending escape by way of a nearby riverbank, the water “troubled” by the Underground Railroad for safe passage. Discussed by scholars as the unquestionable “archetype of protest seen later in antislavery, social gospel, and civil rights hymnody,” spirituals approach a fundamental theme of “the need for a change in the existing order.”4

Ailey certainly perceived this “need for a change” in terms of concert dance practice in New York City at the time he made Revelations. Few options existed for trained dancers of African descent who wanted to express musicality and corporeal memories of dance as a shared communal process. The one-night-only performance “seasons” of artists such as Talley Beatty, Geoffrey Holder, and Donald McKayle in New York City provided precious opportunities cherished by artists and audiences alike, but no institution existed to nurture a dance tradition that could effectively honor the musical stature of the spirituals. Ailey, in making Revelations, hoped to fill this void.

At its premiere, Revelations included sixteen selections, a live chorus of singers including two onstage soloists, and a running time of over an hour. Sections later excised were “Weeping Mary” and “Poor Pilgrim,” both solos for singer Nancy Redi; “Round about the Mountain,” a woman’s trio; “Wonder Where,” a solo for dancer Merle Derby; “Morning Star,” a women’s quartet; “My Lord What a Morning,” sung by the chorus; and gospel versions of “Precious Lord,” “God a Mighty,” and the finale “Elijah Rock!”5

Ailey pared Revelations down to a half hour running time to travel to Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1961. Filmed for the WCBS-TV television program Lamp Unto My Feet just before the trip to Massachusetts, the dance assumed a fixed form of ten selections in three sections titled “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water,” and “Move, Members, Move!” The following description of the television program broadcast on 4 March 1962 offers a sense of how the dance looked in its first complete form, performed by a trim complement of eight dancers, including Ailey himself.6 After the detailed description, I look at why Revelations worked and situate it in contemporary African American cultural life.

Described by an off-camera television announcer as a presentation “for those unnamed preachers and anonymous choirs who, from generation to generation, evolve the unique expressions of Christian worship,” the dance begins as a staged enactment of the choral singing of spirituals. A small group of four women and three men stand close in tight choral formation, their heads and bodies bent forward toward the ground. As the tape-recorded choir repeatedly chants “Praise Him” in short, percussive bursts, the dancers raise their heads and sway nervously. They spread their arms wide, palms facing upward, and tilt their heads (p.5) back, eyes toward the heavens. Some seem to look for a sign from God, while others search with their eyes closed. They teeter pensively at the waist, with knees bent deep and upper bodies stiff with anticipation. The dancers seem to offer their low-to-the-ground stance as a conduit, to call God down to the earth.

                   Revelations 1962

Alvin Ailey, James Truitte, Don Martin, Myrna White, Ella Thompson, and Minnie Marshall in “I’ve Been ‘Buked” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, 1961. Photograph by Jack Mitchell

The group disperses as a simple, introductory drumming pattern sounds, and the camera captures four short solos, phrases added, according to dancer James Truitte, for the benefit of the television producer, who needed to fill out the half-hour program.7 Set to a sorrowful, minor mode hummed figure, these brief excursions are fraught with tension, with angry contractions of the torso suggesting dilemmas of physical oppression and submerged strength. As off-camera voices announce “I’m too tired; I need help; It’s too heavy, Lord; I need so much,” the solo bodies describe spaces of angst.

Finally, the humming is transformed into a cappella singing and the spiritual proper, “I’ve Been ’Buked,” begins. The group reforms its original tight wedge formation to perform a creaky sway and dip to each side connected by a lifting of focus upward. Holding their feet firmly planted in a wide stance, the dancers push their weight downward even as they search the heavens with up-turned (p.6) faces. This image of bodies rooted to the floor while faces are directed upward confirms a choreographic motif of split focus that permeates the dance. These are people in physical bondage invoking, through their movements, spiritual deliverance.

Choreographically, the dance develops in tandem with the spiritual. Movement phrases begin and end with the musical breaths of the choir; as a whole, the staging offers a strict visual correlative to the sung lyrics. While the first verse lyrics tell the story of an individual’s experiences—“I’ve been ‘buked, an’ I’ve been scorned, Children. I’ve been talked about sho’s you’ born”8—its musical setting for mixed chorus suggests a common experience within the large group. The dancers amplify this impression of shared individual experiences through unison passages and sculptural poses suggesting physical exhaustion mirrored by dancers on opposite sides of the stage.

After several brief excursions into the space, the dancers reconvene in the original wedge formation to recover the opening movement phrase, a formal repetition that underscores the cyclical pattern of “’buking and scorning” historically endured by African Americans. The repetition suggests that no matter how far apart the dancers travel, they must come together physically, as pieces of a larger sculptured mosaic, to complete the communal expression of spirituality. A single variation in staging distinguishes this verse from the opening passage. On the final lyric, “sho’s you’ born,” the dancers perform a brittle and fragmented opening of the arms from overhead, moving downward in random, percussive accents. This striking, jagged motion, unlike any preceding it, suggests the piercing arrival of the Holy Spirit in a sudden, collective gasp for breath. The arms move in abrupt lurches, an outward, limb-driven manifestation of the inward-directed torso contraction featured earlier in the piece. The motion captures the overarching movement theme of split focus: as the arms break through space falling downward, tautly held bodies reach up, with powerfully lifted chests and pained faces focused on the heavens.

The group disperses as the spiritual ends, leaving a man and two women to dance a rhythmic song of deliverance, “Daniel (Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel).” Arranged for choir accompanied by conga drumming, the song alludes to the story of a slave oppressed beyond reason whose salvation confirms the healing powers of faith. Like “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” the dance develops as a physical invocation for deliverance, tied equally to the overarching sensibility and substance of the spiritual’s lyric.

Ailey’s choreography is structured as a series of short solos set in counterpoint against a background “base” danced by the two-person ensemble. The solos, roughly one for each dancer, present short vignettes of anguish marked by slow, taut contractions of the torso, urgent head rolls, and restorative leaps through space. The choreography features recurrent imagery of enslavement, as in a gesture with arms brandished overhead and hands held together as if bound at the wrists, while the torso ripples percussively in a physical exaggeration of beating a drum or being flogged at a whipping post. The dance ends with a dramatic unison flourish: lying on their backs, the dancers all stretch one hand up (p.7) just as the singers cut off on the last beat of drums. This punchy, off-the-beat ending amplifies an emotional urgency common to the dances of “Pilgrim of Sorrow.”

“Daniel” clarifies a compositional strategy consistent with several sections of Revelations: movement is performed in unison at the beginning of the piece, followed by solo excursions set contrapuntally against movement of a background group, and ended with a unison group effort and a strongly accented pose. This A-B-C-D-A choreographic structure visually enhances the strophic form of the accompanying spirituals. The structure also suggests a call-and-response format, in which the featured soloist’s movement “calls” are “answered” by the group members, who work in a contrasting but interlocking rhythmic pattern. In “Daniel,” for example, slow-motion leaning gestures performed by the background duo provide the rhythmic base for the soloist’s urgent jumps and turns.

“Daniel” is followed by “Fix Me, Jesus,” the central pas de deux of Revelations. A slow, moaning spiritual of supplication, “Fix Me, Jesus” offers extreme musical contrast to “Daniel” in sustained notes, extended out-of-rhythm musical phrases, and a soaring soprano solo. The vocal solo is embodied by the female dancer onstage, depicted in a private and emotional moment of prayer. The male dancer acts as a guardian angel waiting to assist the praying woman. The paternal configuration—female supplicant aided by male angel—fits neatly with traditional techniques of dance composition in which the woman is physically supported by a male partner.

The dance begins with the woman center stage with arms overhead and eyes closed, swaying in troubled circles from her waist like a tree bending in the wind. Off-camera voices call out over a chorus of humming: “Help me, Lord,” “Need help,” and “Make me ready, Lord.” Repeating motions of searching and blindness from “I’ve Been “Buked,” the woman is suddenly lifted upward by the man, who had been awaiting her quietly in the shadows. She does not see him and seems unaware of his presence here and throughout the duet. Her trust and his authority are each depicted as absolute.

The woman composes her prayer in reaching and searching gestures, allowing the guardian angel to catch her gently in a variety of yielding positions. Her physical focus remains soft and hopeful, marked by an easy swing of the torso over strong, often straight, supporting legs. At one point she is supported precariously only by his hand on her neck, inches from the ground. Her hushed, unassuming confidence reflects the directness of the spiritual’s vocal soloist.

The staging builds through a series of dramatic, extended balances in unlikely sculptural positions executed by the woman. At first, her dance tasks seem physically simple: she is a devout woman physically expressing her faith. The exaggerated balances and “superhuman” feats of daring in later sections—falling toward the ground without hitting it, unfolding her limbs to extraordinary heights—demonstrate her strength and resilience in the world. The mood climaxes as she is lifted, held at the waist and knees by the angel lying on his back, in an extremely vulnerable, arched-back position. Reaching her arms upward, (p.8) she dances in the spirit without seeing the angel; she performs her faith without reference to her physical surroundings.

                   Revelations 1962

James Truitte and Minnie Marshall in “Fix Me, Jesus” from Alvin Ai ley’s Revelations, 1961. Photograph by Jack Mitchell

As in “I’ve Been ’Buked,” the final chorus of “Fix Me, Jesus” reprises movements from earlier sections of the dance, formally closing the woman’s ritual of prayer through the structured repetition. The dance ends with a surprising theatrical variation: the woman balances standing on the man’s leg, arched in a remarkably full arabesque position. Suspended in the air and reaching upward toward God, she stretches her back and arms into spiritual ascension. This supple, curving gesture arrives in stark contrast to the brittle and contracted, turned-in impulses of Revelations’ preceding dances. The ending suggests spiritual fulfillment achieved in the balance of an open, arching back and a complete exhalation of breath released upward.

The next selection, “Sinner Man,” begins with contrasting textures: the angelic voice of a solo soprano juxtaposed with the earthy running of three male dancers. Dressed in simple black tank tops and pants and wearing no shoes, the men portray sinners desperate to escape purgatory. Their dance explores a generalized (p.9) emotion of fear through movement passages arranged in bold, dynamic strokes.

Like “Daniel,” the dance follows an A-B-C-D-A design of a short, out-of-rhythm introduction; three solos set to three sung verses, one for each man; and a final unison group segment for all three dancers. Here, the solos are not set against contrapuntal movements of a background group; the dancers work alone on stage. The formal structure obliges each man to convey fearful distress with contrasting movement ideas: the first solo features reaching gestures, with long, slow extensions of the arms and hands; the second solo is concerned mostly with spiraling turns and slides across the floor on the knees; the third solo contains a challenging array of forceful jumps, turns, and kicks. All three solos use running to connect dance movements.

“Sinner Man” reveals the dramatic and technical facility of each dancer in a format reminiscent of challenge dancing. Each man elaborates on the theme of fear, displaying his particular version of emotional distress in a sequence of ever-rising intensity. As each soloist builds on ideas offered by his predecessor, then adds his own variation, a structured one-upmanship emerges, resolved when the men appear together for the ending unison chorus. Moving through a final flourish, they travel with a gasping, turning leap, then slide on the floor and turn onto their knees to drop their heads backward with the last beat of the drum. The flamboyantly dramatic, punchy ending presents irreconcilable anguish as the sole accomplishment of the sinner man’s pursuit.

“I Wanna Be Ready,” the male solo Ailey and dancer James Truitte created quickly to satisfy the strict timing needs of the television taping,9 offers Revelations’ climactic spiritual of sorrow and desolation. Built on Lester Horton-inspired floor exercises, the dance demonstrates both a man’s private wish for redemption and his physical preparation in a ritualistic test of control as he prepares to meet God. As if performing an act of penance, the man alternates holding his body with fearful tension and releasing that tension in controlled breaths of resignation. Moving in tandem with the baritone soloist’s musical phrasing, the dancer performs short, repetitive actions phrased to visualize the music: reaching and pulling, pleading and praying, balancing and meditating. Several movements pass through the shape of the cross.

The song lyric casts the singer and, by extension, the dancer as a sinner seeking penance: “I wanna be ready, Lord, ready to put on my long white robe.”10 Staying low to the ground for a remarkably demanding series of floor-bound movement, including an exacting passage of coccyx balances, the man describes his intertwined trepidation and piety. The solo ends inconclusively, with the man collapsed in a heap with his head to the ground on the final beat of the music, one hand subtly shielding his body from the premature arrival of the Lord.

After “I Wanna Be Ready,” Revelations shifts from the mournful solemnity of private supplication to the communal enactment of a waterside baptism. A large processional of eight dancers bursts onto the scene, swirling in bright white costumes and bearing mysterious, all-white props: an umbrella, a tree branch, and long swatches of gauzy white fabric. The off-camera voices return, and two (p.10) young women discuss an impending baptism, speaking over a sung, syncopated walking bass figure. Their dialogue stresses the importance of the ceremony, their discomfort at the prospect of entering a cold, muddy river, and general anxiety surrounding a rite of passage after which they “Ain’t gonna be a little girl no more.”

Turning in easy, loosely phrased patterns that move the group forward, the erect bodies and joyful fellowship of the dancers provide sharp contrast to the angst-ridden, contorted shapes of the preceding spirituals. The dancers form a column to move with steady determination toward the offstage riverside site of the impending baptism. Two initiates, a man and a woman in the center of the group, are distinguished by their lack of ceremonial props; the other dancers bear baptismal agents—the branch to sweep the earth, cloths to cleanse the sky, an umbrella for protection—to be used in the ceremony. The dancers move in confident, inexorable slow motion, directing their weight downward into the floor, holding their upper bodies still as their hips sway gently below.

At times, some dancers break the slow rhythm of the processional to run ahead, clearing a path for the celebrants with sweeping turns and tilted layout extensions. At one point, the group stops suddenly to bow their heads toward the ground in a tableau of genuflection. Arranged in a wedge formation reminiscent of the recurrent design of “I’ve Been ’Buked,” the tableau suggests coherence between this ceremony and the group prayer that began Revelations.

“Honor, Honor” follows the chanted processional with upbeat music of preparation to precede the act of baptism. The acolytes and deaconess bearing the umbrella sweep through the space, running in joyful, measured steps and turns, enacting the lyrics’ exhortation: “Run along children, be baptize[d], mighty pretty meeting by the waterside. Honor, honor unto the dying lamb.” As the music slows for a short, out-of-rhythm interlude of prayer, the initiates are blessed by the deaconess in simple mimetic gestures. Two acolytes writhe on the ground in front of the initiates, physically preparing the ritual space with ecstatic movements suggesting spirit possession. As the music resumes a joyful rhythmic urgency, the initiates and their sponsors stride toward the imaginary river-bank in sober, half-time steps while the two possession dancers buzz around the periphery of the space performing fast, swirling turns. The sequence employs a layering of rhythmic activity to suggest an assembly of individuals fulfilling discrete but interconnected tasks of preparation.

“Wade in the Water,” the most commonly known of all the spirituals selected by Ailey, accompanies the centerpiece dance of Revelations. A continuation of the baptismal ceremony, the dance begins simply, with the deaconess leading the two initiates into a river, represented by two long pieces of silk-like cloth stretched across the stage. With focused seriousness of intention, the initiates step into the water to begin a rippling motion of the torso which builds over the course of the song into full-bodied ecstatic dancing.

Ella Thompson, the deaconess with the umbrella here, guides the initiates into the dance, beckoning them forward while physically suggesting complex patterns of shoulder, arm, and torso isolations which they echo. Remaining intent (p.11) on facilitating the ceremony, her dutiful presence inspires, calms, and arbitrates as she moves between the initiates, directing and judging them, all the while holding her oversized white umbrella high in the air. Satisfied at their progress, she leaves the riverbank and allows the initiates to dance out their passion together.

                   Revelations 1962

“Wade in the Water” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations from the television program Lamp Unto My Feet, 1962. Photograph by J. Peter Happel

The two initiates continue with serious, focused intention, dancing to complete the ceremony for themselves and the offstage congregation. Depicted as two individuals rather than a couple, they do not dance for, or see, each other. Moving in unison, their dance suggests spiritual commonality between man and woman, framed by the ceremony’s ritual purpose, without any reference to gender difference. Their costuming, however, underscores their sex: the woman wears a full white dress that leaves her arms and neck exposed, and the man wears only tightly fitted white slacks that bare his torso to the riverbank.

The final three dances of Revelations enact a rural southern gospel church service. Set inside a wood-framed church designed specially for the television presentation, the sequence is introduced with a brief piano interlude as two off-camera voices banter about gospel church service. “We don’t sing dead songs,” (p.12) says one man, as another offers, “Make a noise unto the Lord, and jump up into the dance!” to which the first man agrees, “Praise the Lord with Dance!” The narrations here and throughout the television program underscore the theatricality of Revelations as dance theater; they provide an enhanced context for the choreographic coordination of religious music and concert dance.

                   Revelations 1962

“Rocka My Soul” from Alvin Ai ley’s Revelations from the television program Lamp Unto My Feet, 1962. Photograph by J. Peter Happel

The camera pans across the stage set to center on a preacher, the singer Brother John Sellers, singing the invocation to service, “The Day Is Past and Gone.” Seated on stools and chairs, the eight dancers face the preacher and rock in assent to the sermon with deflected-focus cool, their eyes barely open, the women fanning themselves gently with straw hand fans. As the invocation segues to an up-beat, gospel-style preaching spiritual, “You May Run On (God a-Mighty),” the dancers become animated, swaying and turning on their stools, until the women eventually rise to dance in unison. The progression from seated to dancing congregation is accomplished slowly, over an entire sung verse, as the women respond naturalistically to the lyrics. The dance builds seamlessly from simple swaying gestures through full-bodied leans and circles of the feet on the floor, into animated gestures of pantomimed conversation to each other and finally stylized, character dance movements incorporating the whole body.

The men rise from their chairs to join in the dancing, skipping transitional states of everyday gesture to launch into a flowing, tightly syncopated phrase of bounding jazz dance. The choreography here is mostly defined by the feet, building on small hopping bounces, catch steps, and occasional lurching contractions (p.13) of the torso. The men dance in unison, without seeing each other, and beyond the purview of the women, who sit down and turn away from them. Later, the women stand on their stools to point at the men, chastising them in gesture as singer Sellers admonishes: “Some folks go to church for to signify, tryin’ to make a date with the neighbor’s wife. But neighbor, let me tell you, just as sure as you’re born, you better leave that woman, better leave her alone!”11 The layering of chanted text and naturalistic gesture allows the sequence a relaxed playfulness in sharp contrast to preceding sections of Revelations.

The final gospel exclamation, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” ends the service on a celebratory high. Again the staging follows the musical structure closely, with choreographic changes mirroring transitions from chorus to verse, tonal modulations, and the rising intensity of the singing ensemble. The dance begins as the small congregation looks about, fanning themselves, allowing the spirit to descend in waves and hit individuals separately. When touched by the spirit, the dancers stop fanning and swaying to suddenly jerk an arm or head percussively upward, a movement that effectively breaks the underlying flow of rhythmic pulse. The dancers pair up, men to women, and in a staging detail reminiscent of ring-shout performance in the rural South, clear out the central area of the sanctuary for dance. Moving stools and chairs to the edges of the space, they emulate rural parishioners, walking with a stooped-over, lurching stride, holding their weight low to the ground as they test the floor’s strength. The women break out to dance first, in a flowing, rhythmic stepping passage that rises in urgency as a female soloist sings improvisatory riffs against a repeating choral background. They dance simple combinations of eight-count duration, first in a loose group, then, at the beginning of a new chorus, in a formal, diagonal line.

The song modulates upward again and again—like Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher!—and the entire company spreads out across the sanctuary to dance in unison. Their movement is all earthbound, but as the dance progresses, they pull their center of weight higher and higher into the upper body, away from the floor. Their dance explores a counterpoint of men against women, add-on steps begun by a single dancer and completed by the entire group, and the kaleidoscopic fanning out of dancers across the sanctuary space. By its end, the dancers hold their bodies proudly erect, no longer impersonating rural churchgoers, but now displaying facility in concert dance technique. Moving in unison, they turn and drop to the floor, ending on their knees in a frozen pose timed to the last beat of music, their arms stretched toward the heavens and heads thrown back in ecstasy.

The movement vocabulary here draws on classic jazz dance steps: struts, rhythmic floor patting by bare feet, shaking of the shoulders and torso, and movement phrasing in blocks of insistent eight. The alignment of jazz dance with gospel music reveals similar ecstatic intentions motivating both forms. In “Rocka My Soul,” Ailey confirms the fundamental connection between worship, a feature of daily life for many rural southern African Americans, and exuberant social dance, the root form of the codified jazz dance movements performed here.

(p.14) Why Revelations Worked

Dancing to spirituals allowed Ailey to suggest a political collaboration between his performance and the music’s historical legacy. Writing about the figurative power of spirituals in African American literature, Henry Louis Gates Jr. called them of “such import to black poetic language that when they surface as referents in the poetry—spoken, sung, or danced speech—they cannot but bear the full emotional and structural import of another lurking but not lost hermetic universe.”12 Ailey’s choreography embodied that “lost hermetic universe,” as it physically represented what composer Hall Johnson termed the “musical alchemy” of African American history crystallized in the choral singing of the spirituals: conscious and intentional alterations of pitch, bewildering counterpoint, and an insistent overall rhythmic base.13 These aspects are most obviously embodied in the extended, off-center balances of “Fix Me, Jesus,” the bursts of chaotic motion of “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” and the rhythmic interplay of “Rocka My Soul,” respectively.

In all, Ailey’s choreography complements the vocal production of its singers in terms of performance technique and style as much as lyrical and musical content. The choreography “breathes” along with the vocal arrangements, in effect amplifying the communal production of performance that the spirituals require. At times, the staging physically represents an extended vocal line melisma, as in “Fix Me, Jesus.” When the vocal soloist leans against the tonal center offered by the group as she exclaims “O! Fix Me!” Ailey’s prayerful dancing woman balances precariously on one leg, then leans even further into the difficult, off-center stance in response to the singer’s call. In this moment, the audience is invited to visualize, hear, and feel the human effort of resistance performed simultaneously by the vocal soloist and the dancer.

In the final “Rocka My Soul” selection, Ailey’s choreography makes visible underlying rhythmic structures of the music’s transformed drumming patterns. As the steady and simple, four-beat rhythmic base proceeds, the vocal arrangement develops syncopated phrasing executed in three- and four-part harmony, rising through several tonal key centers. Ailey’s choreographed stepping patterns here offer visual counterrhythms to the basic beat as well as the choir’s increasingly complex patterns. As the work drives toward its finish and the choir settles into a single rhythmic gesture sung in all vocal registers, the dancers perform a unison phrase of strongly accented rhythmic ideas that amplify the overarching sensations of rhythm that ends the work. These rhythms are made visual, aural, and kinetic. The performing artists—singers, dancers, and musicians as well as the affiliated designers—embody and propel the rhythmic ideas to fill the performance space in several dimensions.

The vocal choirs Ailey worked with in early performances of Revelations followed the tradition of heavily embellished, technically demanding Western-style choral singing honed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late 1800s. The Fisk singers, who toured extensively after the Civil War, tied the singing of spirituals to what was then a revisionist view of the Negro as skillful, capable, and artistic. (p.15) The Fisk tradition of choral singing demonstrated what literary critic Houston A. Baker calls “mastery of form,” a politically motivated accomplishment of precision designed to subvert essentialist critiques of black performance.14 As the Fisk singers, and their primary rivals, the Hampton Institute singers, achieved inordinately modern arrangements of the sorrow songs, they challenged “the essentialist idea that there is a ‘real’ Negro.”15 The Fisk and Hampton traditions, ably continued by the tape-recorded Howard Roberts Chorale in the television performance of Revelations, suggest the radical revision of folk materials to enact mastery of form for disbelieving audiences.

In a like manner, the 1962 national television broadcast of Revelations demonstrated the ability of black dancers to inhabit concert dance technique. From its opening phrases, which aligned the dance movements closely with their musical accompaniment, Revelations displayed its dancers as “masters of form,” able to perform movements culled from Martha Graham, Lester Horton, and Doris Humphrey techniques. In all, the dance requires a strong technique and agility in several movement idioms to be performed successfully; its contents pointedly display the mastery of its performers as dance artists in, at least, the blank modernist gestures of the spirituals section, the ecstatic improvisations of the baptismal scene, and the rhythmic precision amid character-based dramatic overlay of the sanctuary sequence. In this, the corporeal fact of dancers demonstrating physical mastery offers unimpeachable evidence of embodied knowledge. Working with the excellent musical accompaniment of various vocal choirs, Alley’s dancers effectively trumped derisive speculation about the possibilities of African American concert dance. They transformed complex encodings of political resistance, musical ability, and religious narrative onto their bodies to imply a historical reach of black culture, continued here by the act of concert dance.

In interviews conducted around the time of its premiere, Ailey called Revelations a “blood memory” piece, born of fragments from his Texas childhood: “These are dances and songs I feel very personally about—they are intimately connected with my memories of the Baptist Church when I was a child in Texas—baptismals by tree-shrouded lakes, in a lake where an ancient alligator was supposed to have lived—the holy-rollers’ tambourines shrieking in the Texas night.”16

As exotic as Ailey made rural black life sound to his largely urban, white audiences in 1960, concert dancing to spirituals was nothing new. Dances to a variety of “Negro Spirituals” became a staple of concert dance in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Helen Tamiris, Hemsley Winfield, and Edna Guy all made dances with this title. Later in the 1930s, Ted Shawn and Charles Williams both staged suites of spirituals; Wilson Williams and Janet Collins offered separate versions in the 1940s; and Pearl Primus staged at least one in 1950.17 By the 1960s, the danced spiritual had established a successful, perennial niche as concert fare.

Ailey’s version differed from its predecessors in its grand sweep and variety, its sure use of a large group of dancers, and its careful coordination of contrasting musical selections. Revelations created an optimistic, chronological narrative (p.16) of African American release from physical slavery in its ordering of spirituals from the dark, somber-themed lyrics of “I’ve Been ’Buked” and “Daniel,” through the up-beat songs of ritual ceremony in “Honor, Honor” and “Wade in the Water,” to the gospel exclamations of “good news,” “Rocka My Soul.” The musical sequence suggests a historical triumph, a movement toward freedom. This narrative optimism, encompassed by the actual structure of the dance, confidently reflected Ailey’s effort to create an American dance theater born of African American expressive practice. This optimism, in combination with Ai-ley’s unflagging willingness to work within the existing exclusionist and racist structures of American concert dance practice, consistently placed Ailey’s enterprise apart from other, similar efforts.

Ailey premiered Revelations at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA. Under the direction of William Kolodney, the YM-YWHA offered one of the few dependable outlets for African American concert dance artists in New York. Between 1957 and 1960, the Y produced one-night-only “season” concerts by African American choreographers Talley Beatty, Geoffrey Holder, Louis Johnson, Donald McKayle, Ernest Parham, and Eleo Pomare, as well as Jean-Léon Destiné’s concert presentation of Haitian dance. Varied programming at the Y encouraged an interracial audience interested in African diaspora culture that included large numbers of African American students who rarely attended other dance events. Bolstered by the headlining guest artist presence of Martha Graham company soloist Matt Turney, Ailey’s all-black company packed the small auditorium for its 31 January 1960 appearance.

Creating a dance to be performed by African American dancers that dealt explicitly with Afro-American folk materials allowed Ailey to appeal to several audiences simultaneously. African Americans familiar with the historical legacy of spirituals understood Revelations as an aesthetic reclaiming of the music in terms of concert dance. Audiences comfortable with traditional configurations of black performance recognized the passionate display of spirituality and a familiar convergence of despair, ritual, and rural black life. Dance critics recognized the versatility and striking original vision of Ailey’s choreography, built on a vibrant theatricality typically missing from presentations at the YM-YWHA.

Indeed, Ailey’s dances seldom resembled work made by his contemporaries for presentation at the YM-YWHA. Dancers from the original Revelations recalled Ailey’s strong “sense of total theater—the decor, the costumes, the lighting” that underscored an extravagant theatricality in his early work.18 Ailey collaborated with dancers and designers familiar with both the demands of commercial theater and the techniques of concert dance expression to create a punchy mixture of personality and abstraction in his works. He gathered his dancers from the expansive ranks of talented African Americans he met working on Broadway, dancing in other companies, and taking daily technique class. The eclectic group involved in the television taping for Lamp Unto My Feet in 1961 included two men from Ailey’s days at the Lester Horton studio in Los Angeles, James Truitte and Don Martin; Herman Howell; Thelma Hill, who had danced in the New York Negro Ballet; Minnie Marshall, who studied Graham (p.17) technique and danced in the Broadway musical Kwamina; Ella Thompson, daughter of a minister, ballet student of Karel Shook, and cast member of the Broadway musical Jamaica; and Myrna White, Broadway dancer from West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Working together, the affiliated artists distinguished Alley’s theatrical vision significantly from other contemporary African American choreographers. Revelations offered a fuller scenic schema than many presentations by Beatty or Johnson, while it explored a more expansive range of dance techniques than work by Holder or Destiné. Significantly, Ailey’s work in general, and Revelations in particular, landed somewhere between the political aspirations of usually radical Pomare and often universalist McKayle. Revelations offered an optimistic chronology that allowed all of its audiences to imagine a future brighter than the past; at the same time, it presented specific aspects of southern African American experience as significant and suitable for the concert dance stage. Working somewhere in the political middle, Ailey created a dance experience that honored the past while it gestured emphatically toward a future of African American creativity in concert dance.

Dancers were not paid at all for rehearsals and were paid only nominal fees for major performances.19 Ailey galvanized his company through his grand vision and persuasive charisma. In a 1964 interview, Myrna White explained why dancers worked for Ailey whenever possible: “Alvin’s great ability is that he reaches everyone in his audience, professional dancers and laymen attending their first concert. It isn’t only his own dancing, it’s the sense of theater in his choreography, the sense of drama he gets into the performance of every dancer he trains.…The reason dancers look forward to performing with Alvin Ailey and Company is that they know they will reach their audience, and their audience will reach them.”20 In this, White confirms the importance of a reciprocity between dancer and audience that Revelations perennially inspired.

Critical reaction to the hour-long 1960 version of Revelations ranged from subdued praise to bald enthusiasm. Writing for Dance Magazine, Selma Jeanne Cohen praised the “exciting stage designs, suddenly broken by huge surges of movement and resolved into mourning masses of stillness” of the opening, but found the suite “much too long for sustained effectiveness,” burdened at times by “an almost literal reiteration of the musical phrase.”21 Walter Terry noted the thematic range of the musical selections contained by this “marvelous” work: “The movement invention, though rich in novelty, is always in accord with the thematic material and the choreographer has done a superb job of contrasting sorrow with joy, serious intent with innocent comedy, formality of design with freedom of expression.”22

Other critics recognized the lingering minstrel show personae suggested by Ailey’s oppressed slave archetypes. Writing for the Village Voice, Jill Johnston played up the exotic-primitive appeal of Revelations for her readers: “It’s a swinging dance that could drive you easily out of your mind, or back to sanity.…You can’t resist it; you can’t resist the rushing rolling sinuous movement (pure uncontaminated movement) that involves the entire body in rippling (p.18) waves of mutually activated segments; you can’t resist the ecstatic extensions which throw the body into bursting arcs of mad abandon; you can’t resist that music, that DRUM! The drum will never let you go. Ailey has made a theatre piece with the inspired drunken compulsion of a fertility rite.”23 Ostensibly a rave review, Johnston’s hints at a limiting, essentialist racial scheme perceptible in Revelations.

(p.19) Break: Black Modernism

                   Revelations 1962

Alvin Ailey, James Truitte, Don Martin, Myrna White, Ella Thompson, and Minnie Marshall in “I’ve Been ‘Buked” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, 1961. Photograph by Jack Mitchell

As object, the back body epitomizes modernism.

As subject the black body offers a failed site of modernism.

It must be abject.

Music theorist Craig Werner points out that neoclassical discourse focuses largely on the concept of universalism, in which “certain themes, images, and techniques express fundamentally ‘human’ concerns that transcend the limitations of any particular set of circumstances.”24 Although the actions and artistry of African Americans may indeed express “universal” truths, the black body itself never achieves this transcendence in any discourse of the West. Marked even before it can be seen, before it can even exist, the black body carries its tangled web of work and sexual potentials, athletic and creative resources, and stratified social locations onto the stages of the modern.

(p.20) Black bodies offered a cipher of “not-ness” that enabled whites to articulate modernity in the first part of the twentieth century. Toni Morrison writes persuasively about blackness in literature, to remind us that the white American modern could not exist without its opposite of the black African primitive, and for American writers engaged in the construction of modernist literature, “a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness.”25 Morrison’s examples encompass a century of authors who encountered blackness as an oppositional presence, by design or default, and in the process imbricated blackness and the primitive in the conception of the modern.

In concert dance, the most celebrated first-generation modern choreographers—Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman—struggled with the figuration of dancing black bodies in their work.26 These artists could not—and did not—ignore black bodies altogether, but by and large they imagined blackness as an alternative to monotonous, everyday whiteness, as a site of ecstatic release to be summoned when needed. As dance theorist Brenda Dixon Gottschild reminds us, in 1930 Martha Graham quipped: “We have two primitive sources, dangerous and hard to handle in the arts, but of intense psychic significance—the Indian and the Negro.”27 The “psychic significance” of the Negro and the Indian refer, of course, to the formation of white subjectivity within modernity, but Graham’s recognition of “danger” and “intensity” in Africanist expression predicts an enormous potential for black bodies on public stages in any expressive idiom.

In 1961, Graham’s teacher, Louis Horst, published a small composition and analysis primer, Modern Dance Forms, which included reference to “primitive” shapes that look remarkably like the preferred angular stances and impulses of then contemporary African American social dances.28 Black dance gestures arrived in modern dance works through compositional techniques like those set forth by Horst as referents of primitive movement. Some white artists, such as choreographer Helen Tamiris, attempted to choreograph the outward shapes and ecstatic release of black dance in works like Negro Spirituals (1937), but of course, these dances avoided actual dancing black bodies.29 Black movements may have been untidy and dangerous to some white viewers because their aesthetic imperatives were largely inscrutable. How black dance gesture conveyed more than its iconography mystified even those who recognized its power; in her autobiography, Isadora Duncan suggests avoiding all African impulses because of their potent modernist appeal.30

For example, consider the critical response when Agnes de Mille created “Black Ritual” for the New York Ballet Theater, the precursor to American Ballet Theatre, in 1940. Performed by a cast of sixteen women to a score by Darius Milhaud, the piece intended to “project the psychological atmosphere of a primitive community during the performance of austere and vital ceremonies.”31 This was not a classically shaped ballet, but its cast had received dance training in a specially established, segregated “Negro Wing” of the Ballet Theatre school. Critical reaction to the piece was muted, and the dance was considered unsuccessful, at least because, under de Mille’s choreographic direction, the Negro dancers were not performing authentic Negro material. After viewing the work, dance writer Walter Terry called for “a Negro vocabulary of movement…composed of modern dance movements, ballet steps, tap and others (p.21) …[which] should enable the Negro to express himself artistically and not merely display his muscular prowess.”32 By 1940, black dance movements and aesthetic principles, seldom viewed on concert dance stages, were considered in and of themselves “antimodern.”

Eventually, some white artists moved beyond the outward shapes of the “black dance” to try to get at the impulses that drive it. Among neoclassical and postmodern choreographers, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp absorbed Africanist aesthetic devices of downward-directed energy, insistent rhythmicity, angularity of line, percussive rupture of underlying flow, individualism within a group dynamic, and access to a dynamic “flash of the spirit” that confirms simultaneously temporal presence and ubiquitous spirituality.33 But again, these choreographers often worked without the dancing black bodies that first explored these dimensions. Overwhelmingly, black presence in the construction of modern dance has been positioned implicitly as an antidote to (premodern) classicism, but explicitly as an afterthought or footnote. Paraphrasing Morrison, modern dance in the United States has, for the most part, taken as its concern the architecture of a new white woman.34

If the modern dance emerged to explore white female subjectivity, there was likely little space for black innovation in its early years. The critical record for early concert dance is largely white, and few artists or authors paid attention to the permutations of form that black artists inspired.35 The audience, too, for concert dance mirrored the readers of American literature, and, as Morrison reminds us, “until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white.”36 For white audiences and critics to understand African American excellence in modern dance, their work had to be read as “universal” in theme.

Ailey positioned his work among the Afro-modernists of the 1950s, both writers and choreographers, who explored “universal” aspects of human experience. Werner notes that “only those black writers whose work can be presented in terms of the ‘universal’—[Ralph] Ellison is perhaps the most obvious example—receive ‘serious’ (if extraordinarily narrow) attention and financial rewards.”37 Ailey, like Ellison and choreographer Donald McKayle, sought a broad audience for his work, and he sought a committed African American audience for modern dance as well. For Ailey, dance had to be “modern” in that it had to offer a unique synthesis of similar choreographic ideas that preceded it, but it also had to satisfy an impulse to honor ancestral legacies of performance. Revelations managed to achieve both of these tasks.

Ailey’s goal and achievement was to make black bodies visible, if not dominant, in the discourse of modernist American dance. He did this in selecting his company of mostly black artists, but also in the very real establishment of a solid, African diaspora concert dance-going public. This accomplishment of visibility carries mixed fortunes because, as performance theorist Peggy Phelan points out, “there is real power in remaining unmarked; and there are serious limitations to visual representation as a political goal.”38 Ailey did identify a community of black dancers and allowed his work to address black audiences and, through this increased visibility, set in motion increased opportunities—social and political power—for African diaspora dance artists. But the overexposure of visible black bodies Ailey engendered in works, including (p.22) Revelations, collapsed representation and identity to such a linear and mimetic extent that stereotypes of pious and exuberant black bodies threatened to emerge from the black churches of Ailey’s “blood memories.” For generations, any African American concert dance artist might have been expected to make a Revelations-style dance.

Still, Revelations fits into the project of the modern because, in its first gestures of oppression encoded in the opening stance of immobile tension, it highlights freedom. As music historian John Lovell notes, “The I of the spiritual is not a single person. It is every person who sings, everyone who has been oppressed and, therefore, every slave anywhere.”39 The opening posture of the dance implies physical bondage and slavery, and, as Morrison writes, “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me.”40 This is what audiences—all audiences, by 1960—are invited to contemplate. The not-me-ness of the dancers highlights difference. Not-me as black dancing body; not-me as slave archetype; not-me as rural worshiper. Not-me as abstract expression of the spiritual, because I am, in fact, religious and spiritual; not-me as enclosed within a hermetically sealed community, because I am seated in an integrated concert hall witnessing modern dance. I am made visible by the dance; strikingly, its gestures provide corporeal narrative of my memory of pain.

This memory of pain is actually what I feel as I witness the dance. How the world of “I’ve Been ’Buked” hurt, its subjects imprisoned by an essential subjugation reflected here in attitudes of deflected focus and a lack of visual connection. Here, dancers rarely look toward each other or the audience. They are sorrowful, beaten, without individual agency. The modern enervates them, saps their bodies of dynamic potential. Significantly, as Revelations becomes more jubilant, its movements migrate from (white) modernist abstraction to (black) vernacular dance structures. The dancers escape the dead confines of abstract dance that expresses inner turmoil to inhabit the living representation of people dancing for and with each other.

If modernism fails on black dancing bodies, it is because the act of performance supersedes its implications in the Africanist paradigm. Or, what the black body means in stillness on a Western stage is transformed by its motion through what it does. When dancing black bodies connect to their audience, they are never abject. They are the initiators of vital communication that is ancient and traditional, ephemeral, and, in some paradigms, modern.

(p.23) Situating Revelations in African American Cultural Life

For many African American audiences, Ailey’s work gained special significance as modern art through its powerful, referential treatment of familiar spiritual texts. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose writings about black poetry are applicable to modern dance and especially Revelations, spirituals as referents “give black poetry an opulence of meaning—one translated through time and space by an oral tradition of over three and a half centuries—not readily available to exterior exploration.” For Gates, this “assumption of especial meaning to the initiated becomes more than simply knowing the lines,” because “the best of poetic expression is essentially untranslatable.” African American audiences, then, could experience Revelations in marked variance to others, because they could acknowledge Ailey’s competence as a black poet of dance able to create mythopoesis that could “predict our future through his…sensitivity to our past coupled with an acute, almost intuitive awareness of the present.”41

Revelations quickly became a defining dance document of African American culture for all of its audiences. With its ending staged to familiar gospel selections that could then be heard on radio hit parades, the dance confirmed an easy continuity of African American social dance, spirituality, and accomplishment in modern dance. By 1964 critic P. W. Manchester referred to it as “one of the great dance works of the day,”42 its staying power tied to the choral grandeur of Ailey’s staging for ensemble. Ailey captured the essential choral form of black hymnody, “where[in] large crowds sang freely”43 and created choreographic guideposts within which his dancers could flourish, confident of their connection to the material and its cultural importance. Fully aware that the dance represented the history of a people’s faith, the dancers filled out the movement patterns with a sense of drama, with passion and zeal, and what Ailey later recalled as “menace and funk.”44

Revelations recalled a segregated era when African Americans had little access to mainstream American life. In the opening section of the dance, shoeless, drab costuming evoked a rural, antebellum setting fitting both a historical conception of slave clothing and the barefoot modern dance. Ironically, the appropriate barefoot “modern” costuming accurately linked the dancing black bodies with poverty, paucity of means, and an affinity for powerful physical expression. But if the work proposed anything “dangerous” or “messy” in its opening gestures—perhaps in the staged reenactment of physical bondage, a sticking point for most Americans—those edges were quickly smoothed by the economy of its dance motion, the brevity of its musical selections, and the confident dispatch of its staging.

But the summary nature of the suite form threatens to collapse its structure into neat boxes, and surely part of the success of Revelations stems from its reliance on “traditional” roles for men and women. Indeed, black feminists looking to Revelations for a visionary depiction of gender equity found little of modern comfort in Ailey’s choreographic scheme. Though the dance had several sections featuring women in its original 1960 form and was designed around onstage (p.24) soloist Nancy Redi, according to Ailey’s notes, the 1962 television version relied heavily on male presence for momentum and dynamism. The ordering of “Fix Me, Jesus,” with its dominating male angel, followed by the male trio of “Sinner Man” and the solo “I Wanna Be Ready” focused attention on the four men of the eight-member ensemble. Ailey’s electrifying rhythmic abandon, his superbly developed athletic body, and his confident, seething dramatic presence command the viewer’s attention in “Daniel,” “Sinner Man,” and the baptismal sequence of “Wade in the Water.” Costuming by Ves Harper amplified the men’s visual dominance: always dressed in form-fitting trousers, the men dance bare-chested or with loose mesh tank tops through the first two sections of the dance. In contrast, the women’s bodies are consistently concealed by voluminous skirts in the first two sections and loose-fitting go-to-meeting dresses for the final gospel section. The strict gender coding confirms traditional roles for men and women in the world of the dance, even if those roles do allow for female leadership in some scenes, as in the waterside baptism.

Certainly Ailey’s reliance on masculine domination as a component of choreographic structure allowed his work to appeal to a vast audience conditioned to welcome this representation. In all, Revelations explored coherent visions of class, gender, and sexuality. The dance concerned itself largely with issues of cultural representation and structures of feeling as if they could be either detached from other social paradigms or evacuated in service of the work’s well-being. Like other works of its era, it offered a rare representation of black subjectivity without questioning the social foundations of gender, class, or sexuality implicit in its portrayals. The rural southern worshipers are depicted as black men and women; their shared cultural values mitigate other social differences they may experience. Significantly, however, the work contained several scenes of private, or solo, supplication, sequences such as “Fix Me, Jesus” and “I Wanna Be Ready” that presented inscrutable personal questioning. In these sequences, audiences were invited to project their own personal concerns about African American social structures onto the meaning of the modern dance.

Ailey’s choreographic notes indicate that he originally conceived the dance’s three-part form to draw a “story line connection for spirituals,” to suggest an extended single-day church service moving from an opening indoor service to the banks of a nearby river for a baptism and then back into the church for a “celebration of [the] baptismal in ecstatic dances.”45 To choose musical material, Ailey “did extensive research…listened to a lot of music,” and consulted music historian Hall Johnson.46 Johnson probably directed Ailey to Marc Connelly’s drama The Green Pastures, which included three selections found in Revelations: “I Wanna Be Ready,” “Sinner Man,” and “You Better Mind.”47 For the baptismal sequence, in which he intended to suggest “the Afro-Brazilian fetishist rituals and their influence on the Church,” Ailey remembered waterside rituals from his Texas childhood.48 He recalled the vibrantly theatrical vision of ethnographic dance that Katherine Dunham had presented in the 1940s, even as he also drew on his extensive Broadway and film performing experiences, which included several ritualistic processionals and “voodoo” numbers.

(p.25) For Ailey, Revelations realized the largely untapped potential of black dancers to inform concert dance with the profound cultural heritage of African American experience. The original hour-long version of the dance depended heavily on its dancers to fill in the dramatic specificity of its setting. At a 1993 symposium devoted to Revelations, dancer Ella Thompson recalled that Ailey gave insight into the quality of certain movements through descriptions of people he had known—qualities of personality familiar to dancers raised in similar cultural environments. Dorene Richardson, who danced in Revelations’ world premiere, recalled that each rehearsal for the dance began with a gesture of the hands moving in circles as the torso undulated in its own rhythm, a movement sequence common to many ecstatic dances of the African diaspora. Judith Jamison spoke of the space between the steps that “allow the dancer to reveal himself—it is up to the dancer to give the steps meaning.”49 As this discussion suggests, however, the “meaning” Jamison alludes to is embedded in a variety of explicitly African American expressive and interpretive paradigms.

Revelations challenged its dancers to pull together abstract dance technique and cultural memory to create archetypal black personae. The huge, sweeping variety of the dance offered “something for everyone,” providing its dancers and audience a constantly shifting range of emotional material. Ailey employed an expansive range of dance technique in Revelations: jazz dancing, balletic positions, Graham, Horton, Humphrey, Brazilian stance, West African isolations and complex rhythmic meter, and a fundamental African American musicality all find their way into the choreography to form a seamless whole, an unprecedented site of entry for black dancers to concert performance. In Revelations Ailey embodied the spiritual’s “naturally veiled and half articulate” message of faith, to physically re/present W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic trilogy of the African American legacy: a gift of story and song, a gift of sweat and brawn, and a gift of the Spirit.50


(1) . Alvin Ailey, with A. Peter Barley, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995), 98.

(2) . Jon Michael Spencer, Protest and Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), vii.

(3) . Arnold Shaw, Black Popular Music in America: From the Spirituals, Minstrels, and Ragtime to Soul, Disco and Hip-Hop (New York: Shirmer Books, 1986), 13.

(4) . Spencer, Protest and Praise, viii; John Lovell Jr., Black Song The Forge and the Flame (New York: Paragon House, 1972), 223.

(5) . Alvin Ailey, program note, Kaufmann Concert Hall YM-YWHA, 31 January 1960.

(6) . The Lamp Unto My Feet videotape is available for viewing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

(7) . James Truitte, interview with the author, 8 November 1994.

(8) . All lyrics quoted are from Hall Johnson, I’ve Been ’Buked (New York: G. Schirmer, 1946), 3–4.

(9) . Truitte interview, 8 November 1994.

(10) . James Miller, “I Wanna Be Ready” (New York: Galaxy Music Corporation, 1943), 2–3.

(11) . Hall Johnson, et al., Revelations, vocal score, 1973: 83–84. This looseleaf compilation of photocopied musical arrangements, dated 1973, is housed in the Ailey archives. Some selections include original publishers and dates.

(12) . Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Black Structures of Feeling,” in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 175.

(p.258) (13) . Hall Johnson, “Notes on the Negro Spiritual,” in Readings in Black American Musky ed. Eileen Southern (New York: Norton, 1971), 271.

(14) . Houston A. Baker Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 22.

(15) . Spencer, Protest and Praise, 12.

(16) . Arthur Todd with Alvin Ailey, “Roots of the Blues,” Dance and Dancers (November 1961): 24.

(17) . The many precedent works bearing this title include Helen Tamiris, “Negro Spirituals” (1928), Edna Guy, “Danced Spirituals” (1931), Hemsley Winfield, “Four Spirituals” (1932), Ted Shawn, “Negro Spirituals” (1933), Charles Williams, “Negro Spirituals” (1935), Wilson Williams, “Spiritual Suite” (1942), Janet Collins, “Negro Spirituals” (1947), and Pearl Primus, “Negro Spiritual” (1950). See John O. Perpener III, African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), and Susan Manning, Race in Motion: Modern Dance, Negro Dance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) for more information about these early choreographies of spirituals.

(18) . William Moore, “Alvin Ailey (1931–1989),” Ballet Review (winter 1990): 15.

(19) . Jacqueline Quinn Latham, “A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists: Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey” (Ph.D. diss., Texas Women’s University, 1973), 522.

(20) . Qtd. in John Dougherty, “From Los Angeles, Halfway Round The World In Dance,” Music Magazine (April 1964): n.p.

(21) . Selma Jean Cohen, “Alvin Ailey Dance Theater,” Dance Magazine (March 1960): 69.

(22) . Walter Terry, “Met Ballet Plans; Ailey, Nikolais,” New York Herald Tribune, 7 February 1960: n.p.

(23) . Jill Johnston, “Mr. Ailey,” Village Voice, 21December 1961: n.p.

(24) . Craig Hansen Werner, Playing the Changes: From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 275.

(25) . Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 6.

(26) . Among early works, Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown (1936) and Martha Graham’s American Document (1938) each assumed a unique American “problem” of the Negro’s place in national society. Dance historians Julia Foulkes, Ellen Graff, and Susan Manning each consider the influence of black bodies on the formation of (white) American modern dance. See Julia Foulkes, Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Ellen Graff, Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City 1928–1942 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); and Manning, Modern Dance, Negro Dance.

(27) . Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence, 47.

(28) . Louis Horst and Carroll Russell, Modern Dance Forms, in Relation to the Other Modern Arts (San Francisco: Impulse Publications, 1961).

(29) . Susan Manning has written about this topic in “Black Voices, White Bodies: The Performance of Race and Gender in How Long Brethren,” American Quarterly, 50.1. (March 1998): 24–46.

(30) . Isadora Duncan, My Life (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1927), 339–343.

(31) . De Mille program note quoted in John Martin, “De Mille Ballet Seen As Novelty,” New York Times, 23 January 1940: 23.

(32) . Walter Terry, “To the Negro Dance,” New York Herald Tribune, 28 January 1940:10.

(p.259) (33) . See Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1983) for a further explication of Africanist aesthetic commonalities in diaspora.

(34) . Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 14–15.

(35) . Perpener’s excellent African-American Concert Dance offers an overview of the early black modern dancers who emerged in the 1930s and their techniques, repertory, and critical reception.

(36) . Morrison, Playing in the Dark, xii.

(37) . Werner, Playing the Changes, 275.

(38) . Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 6.

(39) . Lovell, Black Song, 226.

(40) . Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 38.

(41) . Gates, “Black Structures of Feeling,” 175–177. Expanding on the importance of myth for black communities, Gates continues: “By forging value, by solidifying meaning, the black poet, in his or her own way, forges myth. The importance of myth, of course, is not whether it is believed, or even verifiable; the importance of myth is whether or not it is valued.”

(42) . Phyllis W. Manchester, “Profile: Alvin Ailey,” Dancing Times, October 1964:10.

(43) . H. Johnson, “Notes on the Negro Spiritual,” 272.

(44) . Ailey and Bailey, Revelations, 126.

(45) . Ailey, “Spirituals” file, n.d.

(46) . Ailey and Bailey, Revelations, 98.

(47) . Lovell, Black Song, 526. Johnson directed the choir for the 1930 Broadway production of Connelly’s painfully stereotyped tale of Negro pathos.

(48) . Ailey with Todd, “Roots of the Blues,” 24.

(49) . Continuing Revelations, symposium sponsored by New York Public Library, 11 May 1992.

(50) . W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961), 193,197.