A Valentine for Mum: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company members in “Revelations.”

For as long as I can remember, there is only one present my own Tiger Mom wants for Christmas and Valentine’s Day combined. Of course, I, the dutiful Asian daughter, always grant her wish: a mother-daughter night out at the Kennedy Center to feast on the great spiritual celebration the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AADT) brings annually to DC. It might seem strange that my Burmese mother whose Catholic school upbringing has long been renounced wants to watch Ailey’s legacy danced across the stage, considering that his dances have always been deeply rooted in the Black experience. But, as AADT’s Artistic Director (and one of my personal heroines) Judith Jamison said in the Celebrating Revelations At 50 film:

You watch [Revelations] and you know what it’s like to be human.

Since I moved to DC in 2000, I have directed performances on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage for audiences in the hundreds, performed at the Kennedy Center Honors in front of US presidents and other A-listers, shook Sidney Poitier’s hand backstage, shared an embrace and did sprints around the panoramic rooftop. I’ve also attended countless performances, programs and receptions there, which have all been memorable. By now, I could practically lead the facility’s tours. But, each year, this special moment with my mum is a real treat: three hours of movement affirming what it means to be truly alive. In fact, even the act of pointing becomes a joyous sight to behold with Ailey dancers. Even after having studied with and performing in front of Ailey company members in the summer of 2002, I could watch “Revelations” 1,000 times and it would still be fresh to me.

The February 2nd performance I attended began with a 1974 piece choreographed by Mr. Ailey himself, “Night Creature,” (pictured below). Bathed in blue light, the dancers in this timeless work honored its music and the musician, Duke Ellington’s words:

Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come OUT at night–they come ON, each thinking that before the night is out he or she will be the star.

AADT company members in “Night Creature.”

Like all of Alvin Ailey’s most renowned works, “Night Creature” is a dance of the limbs. The company’s veteran star, Renee Robinson, leads the charge of repetitive hip rolls and slinky strutting in the clusters of sexy beings that Ailey so masterfully assembled. Although I can always die happy after just one Ailey work, the show continued with “The Evolution of a Secured Feminine” (2007), a work by Camille A. Brown. Brown’s command of the dancer’s chin’s pendulum and whirling wrists alone were ovation-worthy. Rachel McLaren’s solo performance in a nude-colored, half-suit, half-bra top made me want to put the soundtrack–“Lover, Come Back To Me” (Sigmund Romberg); “Tight” (Betty Carter) and “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Elisse Boyd & Murray Grand)–on repeat and practice her chair dance until numb. McLaren brought a subtle, nuanced lyricism to Brown’s work. That this modern work fit seamlessly into a program of mostly 50 year-old dances only further confirmed Brown’s sensitivity and maturity as a choreographer.

If you have never seen “The Prodigal Prince” (1968), think of Cee-lo Green at this year’s Grammy Awards or Nick Cave’s sound suits and you might have a vague idea of this dance’s soul-rumbling potential. The program cites the Haitian proverb:

Great gods cannot ride little horses.

Indeed, the challenging roles for men in AADT are unparalleled in modern dance. These gods and goddesses brought the movement of water, spirits and the fantastic to life. The complicated characters illuminated Voudoun traditions and the imagined life of Haitian painter, Hector Hyppolite. Although the erotica seemed to make the young couple sitting in front of me, or at least the boyfriend, uncomfortable, I found this work (new to me) rather brilliant in its explosive use of mythology, color and space. Moreover, the choreographer, music and costume creator-director, Geoffrey Holder, proved that being dedicated to that level of artistic intricacy brings a rare, inimitable beauty to our everyday lives.

AADT company members in “Revelations.”

And then, “I Been ‘Buked” blared over the loudspeakers, followed by the familiar, chaotic melody of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and the Negro spirituals medley that is the soundtrack to “Revelations.” To be honest, anything that I could write about “Revelations” has already been written. Suffice it to say that performing artist Paige Hernandez need not explain the lighthearted sarcasm in her one-woman show, Paige in Full, when she asks if she’d be ‘black enough’ if she performed Ailey renditions while quoting Spike Lee movies. Throwing her hands in the air (Ailey-style, all limbs outstretched to the sky) and shouting “raddddiiiooooo!” we all laugh, knowing that Alvin Ailey dancers have served as ambassadors of Black culture, and American culture at-large, for over 50 years now. It’s no wonder that my mom wants to be reminded each year what it means to be part of a community born of struggle and love. I think it might be the one night each year we feel somewhat patriotic, too. Alvin Ailey celebrated his rural Southern roots and was a proud Black man first. But, he was also an observer and creator of American narratives through dance. Even though I’ll never be baptized by a river, I can wade in Ailey’s proverbial waters each year knowing that church isn’t always a question of walls and pews. Sometimes, it’s the flame in your heart that music ignites, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater never fails to light mine.