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Ailey II brings diversity, culture and community to Chautauqua

Ailey II in Bridget L. Moore’s Skethces of Flames
Ailey II in Bridget L. Moore’s Skethces of Flames

Troy Powell thinks Alvin Ailey’s work “Revelations” is timeless.

“He created this work to evolve with the human race,” said Powell, Ailey II’s artistic director. “It’s not only a piece about African Americans, it’s a piece about people coming together healing, and whatever they believed in, whatever color they were, whatever economic status they were in, no matter how old they were, he wanted to create this work to celebrate it.”

Ailey II will take the stage at Chautauqua Institution for the first time at 8:15 p.m. Monday in the Amphitheater, performing “Revelations,” as well as the pieces “In and Out” and “Something Tangible.”

“Revelations” was originally produced in 1960 by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City as a 10-section piece performed for more than an hour, including a live vocal chorus. It was later condensed into a roughly 30-minute, three-section piece with a recorded original score that included African-American spirituals, sermons and a blend of gospel and blues. The work is derived from what Powell calls Ailey’s “blood memories,” his experiences growing up in the rural town of Rogers, Texas, and the Baptist church, as well as his desire to share, communicate and celebrate the African-American experience.

Ailey was born in 1931 during the Great Depression, a time colored by racial segregation and stark violence against African Americans, including the extrajudicial form of terrorism, lynching. Ailey moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s for junior and senior high school and became serious about studying dance by 1949. He began studying under Lester Horton, whose company, The Horton Dance Company, he joined in 1953. Five years later, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His signature work is “Revelations.”

“Revelations” moves through three distinct sections: “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water” and “Move, Members Move.” Ailey wrote in his autobiography that the songs anchored within “Pilgrim of Sorrow” reflected “black people’s sorrow.”

“It talks about being stricken from your religion, talks about being bonded, talks about not being able to free yourself from your religion, let alone your race,” Powell said.

Songs that embody the purification and spiritual ritual of baptism compose the immersive second section, “Take Me to the Water.”

A processional of dancers dressed in flowing white attire move toward the water for a young couple’s baptism. A white umbrella carried by a female dancer is an iconic symbol within African-American culture and folklore, emblematic of joy and pain. It is ceremonious but becomes sorrowful as a man prepares for death during the solo piece “I Wanna Be Ready.”

The final section, “Move, Members Move,” harnesses the liberating spirit of gospel and music through a men’s trio in a subsection, “Sinner Man,” and ends with the lauded, jubilant “Yellow” subsection that is situated in a rural Southern Baptist church.

Powell took over the company in 2012 following 38 years of Sylvia Water’s direction, who served as its artistic director since Ailey II’s founding in 1974.

Powell joined Ailey II as a teenager and then became a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1991. He spent 10 years touring with the company throughout the world before becoming a master teacher at The Ailey School and resident choreographer of Ailey II. Powell has performed “Revelations” several times himself.

“You have to approach this work in the most humanistic way possible,” Powell said. “That’s what Alvin Ailey taught me: to bring yourself to the movement and bring your own story to the movement — that’s the only way you’re going to grow, that’s the only way you’re going to touch people.”

In preparation for its Chautauqua residency, the company has spent the last week rehearsing seven hours per day. First-year dancers learned the choreography last July and second-year dancers nearly two years ago, so the week leading up to the performance serves as part bootcamp, part refresher.

“I love being in the studio,” said Martell Ruffin1, a 22-year-old second-year dancer. “We’re excited to bring it all to the stage. We’re a firm believer of ‘nothing to prove, only to share.’ ”

Ruffin said “Revelations” is his favorite piece of all time to perform. He credits “Wade in the Water” and “I Wanna Be Ready” as pieces that opened up his mind to think of dance as a career.

“Everyone can connect to it; it’s a living, breathing masterpiece,” Ruffin said.

Dancing with the company has enabled Ruffin to travel the world and exposed him to more than just dance on a professional level.

“I’ve never actually been out of the country until I joined Ailey II,” Ruffin said. “I’ve had the opportunity to go to Europe: Spain, France, Paris, Germany — opportunities a lot of kids my age, me being from the South Side of Chicago, don’t get a chance to experience things like this or even reach out and see all the culture and the things that are out there for them.”

His commitment and approach to dance and community engagement is inspired by a quote of Ailey’s: “I believe that dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.”

“That’s major for me because, of course, we as dancers, we’re on stage performing, doing what we love. But we’re also there to inspire and to heal,” Ruffin said. “If I can touch someone, inspire someone, then I’ve done my job because now they can go on and do the same.”

The company has been working hard to incorporate and train two new dancers who weren’t part of the company’s usual seven-week summer choreography intensive that is followed by a series of seasonal tours.

“These dancers are dancers who can take a situation like this and really make it a very useful one by really putting all of their eggs in the basket,” Powell said. “They’re really, really connecting to what it is that they need to do in order to make these two performances in Chautauqua work.”

In addition to learning “Revelations,” the two dancers have had to learn the five other pieces that will be performed at Chautauqua.

“These young dancers are so passionate, these young dancers are all the way involved, these young dancers are dedicated and committed, that that alone draws you in,” Powell said.

The company is making the seven-hour trip from New York City by bus, an experience that Powell said helps the dancers bond further.

“We hope that people leave the theater thinking differently about dance, about Ailey, about these young artists as well, and most importantly, with a perspective on themselves,” Powell said. “We’re just going to come and we’re just going to celebrate and continue to celebrate Mr. Ailey’s legacy and hope that people can celebrate it with us.”

  1. July 6, 2017: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Martell Ruffin.
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The author Ryan Lindsay

Ryan Lindsay is reporting on dance and the Institution administration for the Daily. She proudly hails from D.C. but is currently studying narrative writing and radio at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Before writing for The Chautauquan Daily, she worked as a community & culture reporter for Oakland North, a community news outlet. As a child, she graced the stage as a memorable mouse in “The Nutcracker.” Don’t hesitate to drop her a line at ryanlindsayreports@gmail.com.

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