Despite ballet’s winning the dominant place in American concert dance in a changed political environment, the concurrent emergence and success of Alvin Ailey points to changing social dynamics in modern dance as well. Ailey made his choreographic debut in New York City at the 92nd Street Y. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, formed in 1958, fused in movement and theme the nationalist political focus of the 1930s with the racial heritage of America—thus embracing and altering American modern dance. The roots of the Black Arts Movement are easily traced to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
That earlier movement was the first attempt by African American artists to produce work consciously grounded in their folk heritage and to utilize that work for the social advancement of the race. The emergence of Ailey in the course of modern dance illuminates how social dimensions of bodies shaped artistic movements in the United States in the twentieth century. In the 1930s dancing pictures of America remained white; the depictions of Africa and the Caribbean by African American dancers only reinforced the whiteness of physical portraits of America.
Racial integration in the dance world occurred slowly and correlated to increasing political activism for civil rights. But the rise of Ailey was definitive. His success occurred at a time of political liberalism and redefinition of the United States as fundamentally ethnically diverse. He formed his own company, called it American, and proceeded to choreograph America. The U. S. government’s choice of Ailey to represent America’s concert dancing prowess abroad as cultural envoy in the John F. Kennedy International Exchange Program in 1962 finally sanctioned African Americans’ rightful place as practitioners in, and creators of, modern dance.
Alvin Ailey was born in Texas in 1931 just as Martha Graham and others were solidifying the new modern dance. “Ailey grew up amid fierce racial segregation; when he was five, his mother was raped by a white man. ” (Foulkes, 2002 p179) Modern dance gathered momentum in the 1930s because a focus on bodies coalesced with the search to find an American way in the arts that favored an experiential approach, attention to the polyglot nature of the country’s population, and revivification of the democratic tradition in the midst of an economic depression and an impending crisis in Europe.
This progress was made in spite of a desperate time in which most social roles were defined for people as they struggled to find ways to survive. In modernism “opportunity” allowed for the emergence of an art form filled with women striving to compose serious and meaningful statements with their bodies. Modern dancers figured out ways to combine their ardent embrace of individualism with group movement and communal ventures, primarily in dances of America.
The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s arrival on the New York dance scene in the late 1950s coincided with a rise in government-sponsored cultural exportation. In 1962 the Ailey Company undertook an unprecedented thirteen-week engagement in Southeast Asia and Australia sponsored by the President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations under the Kennedy administration. Ailey made dances that were important to him, and the performances made the audience look to the particular cultural processes and social realities that inspired him.
Ailey’s dances may speak to a wide, global audience, but they speak from an African American ethos that remains insubstantially documented. (Defrantz, 2004, pvii) No single or indeed double way of looking at performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater sustains primacy for long. For example, just when Revelations seems to be telling a story of ethnic faith as movement abstraction in its first section, the work shifts to physically enact a waterside baptism, explicitly Christian in principle but AfroCaribbean in practice.
Along this line of progression, gender emerges as a sure organizing feature of the dance, as a female devotional leader with an umbrella orchestrates the baptism, but the theatricality of expansive blue silk “waterways” intrudes on the reading of the sexes. For a time, the audience is asked to consider the global circulation of theatrical convention, as the silk streams, clearly borrowed from certain Asian theater traditions, reflect Ailey’s initial theater training in California.
Visionary and indicative of Ailey’s performances, the dancer’s body has become a place for political statement in itself and all of today’s dance now at the very least recognize that the body cannot be neutral and neither can the dancer, both are charged with political implications. “Implicit within this is a new ontological status for dance itself—as collaborative art. ” (Grau et al, 2000, p203) The arts, including dance, can reflect, reinforce, prompt, challenge as well as be appropriated in the quest for identity.
They are never politically innocent: they operate in dialogue with both exclusive and inclusive ideologies. (Grau et al, 2000, p4) In the 1960’s television broadcasting giant CBS, televised a religious series of dance pieces. In one memorable instance, Alvin Ailey, whose Revelations received its TV debut on Lamp Unto My Feet in 1962, just a few years after its stage premiere. “This first TV production of Ailey’s powerful ballet (there would be three others in the years to follow) captured the work in its early, chamber like incarnation, before it had become more populated and more explosively theatrical.
“(Rose, 1986, p44) “Dance movement and ritual is basic to being a human being–from expressing deeply felt emotions, to the physical expression of music, to just the joy in movement itself. Dance can reflect and validate social organization and preserve cultural values. As an art form it reflects humanity’s quest for excellence and achievement. ” (Riddle, 1993, p22) Anthropological study of dance is valuable and valid, with specific areas of investigation and inquiry, but it must be inclusive of all dance forms and not exclusive on the basis of cultural hierarchy.
Pearl Primus’ work, “Impinyuza,” a paean to the royal dancers of the Watusi ethnic group of Ruanda was performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a Sunday New York Times review described is as anthropological. (Asante, 1993, p48) The debate between the freedom and distinctiveness of the individual and the need for and belief in collective harmony is formed in the creative tension of modern dance. In bringing insights on this question from the Caribbean and Africa, Alvin Ailey shed light on the social dimensions that structured the concert stages and neighborhoods of the United States.
His interpretations insisted upon a broadened definition of art and culture and a loosening of rigid social categories of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The history of modern dance reveals the limitations that remained despite their push: divisions of art into high and low went largely unchallenged and perpetuated class and racial prejudices. But the revelations of Alvin Ailey show that these bodies could indeed rearrange the “headlines that make daily history” and move the world.
African dance has been described as a repository of communal wisdom, a mnemonic device for effective communication, and an educational tool. Because dances have their origin in specific communal experiences and are reproduced by a memory, their epistemological basis may give us insight into the African-American creative mode. Dance history courses highlight the masterworks that have defined modern dance and the artists who created them, as well as their significance.
Alvin Ailey’s “Take Me to the Water” section from Revelations, and Donald McKayle’s Games are representative works that inspired the creation of lessons. (Hubbard et al, 1998) Performance as a whole yields insight into political activity in the way it focuses our attention on the weight and value of the actions we take. Dance suggests an alternate measure of the worth of politics. “If a sense of the body can enter the realm of talk about politics, then the entrances and exits to such conversations could be greatly facilitated.
” (Martin, 1990, p xi) In essence, the intention in this narrative is to show the metaphor of performance as seriously enough so that it ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a way of experiencing, enacting, and embodying political activity. The strategy for the passage from metaphor to thing-in-itself, from something signed to something signified, from something conscious to something sentient will be to look closely at a particular theatrical performance to develop a model for the social stage.
By examining two performing arts, dance and theater, the hope is to compose a method of analysis not based upon literature, language, and the analysis of symbols. (Martin, 1990, p9) The pervasive emphasis on the discursive aspects of texts and practices, on social construction and representation, meant that issues of ideology and of political economies of social distinctions came to the fore. (Desmond, 1997, p4) Here, in the movement of Ailey’s social dance forms, the rural/urban tensions are acted out.
The adoption of a more European style verticality, for instance, formed part of a whole complex of behaviors, including dress that differentiated the urban population from rural ones. “The “urbanization””modernization”-“Westernization” ideology was being carried on here, acted out as a bodily trope which gradually ‘slipped away as the night went on’. ” (Desmond, 1997, p40) What the prominence of Ailey shared with postmodernists was the continued leading role of gay men in modern dance begun in the late 1940s.
While women, both white and African American, had led the movement in the 1930s, by the 1960s men, both white and African American, led the art form, even though it continued to attract far more women than men. The achievement and influence of Alvin Ailey as a choreographer demonstrated that the modern dance offered a welcoming place for women leaders, and still more so than ballet. But the continued prominence of men in modern dance, particularly relative to their small numbers, suggests that men still retain an advantage in this female-dominated profession.
The models of Alvin Ailey pioneering are integrating their companies and nurturing an integrated, though predominantly black, audience base. Each of these groups turned to the emergent black middle class as their ideal audience members; that middle class had less interest in blatant social protest ideology. “…however still, artists of the Black Arts Movement are profoundly helped toward the alteration of the dance world status quo. Like their literary kin, these artists drew attention to unresolved questions of cultural aesthetics and mythologies surrounding black bodies in concert dance.
.” (Bean, 1999, p92) African-American concert dancers made a significant impact on all aspects of American modern dance. Dancers, such as Katherine Dunham, evolved new ways of moving that directly referenced their experiences in African dance forms to create new works based on rich nonwestern resources. These important contributions to American cultural life needed to have a place alongside the new dance styles and choreography made by European Americans during the 20th century.
Because available textbooks do not present a complete picture, it is necessary to find ways to incorporate the work of African-American pioneers and second-generation modern dancers into 20th-century dance history. This means that, from an historical and cultural view, all contributing work defined as modern dance is discussed together so that the developing art form, with all its influences, may be described completely.
To accomplish this, traditional course content is supplemented, and the course syllabus now incorporates the African-American dance pioneers simultaneously with European- American choreographers. It might be possible to agree with these critics about what constitutes bad political art and to note the particular difficulties dance encounters when it seeks to narrate politics. But these formulations seem to suggest something different: that it is the presence of politics itself that is excessive in dance, a surplus generated elsewhere and somehow uneasily grafted onto the otherwise autonomous aesthetic.
If one grants that along with dance, politics cannot have a solitary form or unitary object, if neither can be one thing or about one thing, it becomes possible to notice a proliferation of political activity throughout the social fabric and not simply confined to what are formally considered to be political institutions. When politics is treated merely as an idea or ideology, it occurs in stillness, awaiting something that will bring people to action or mobilize them.
But this presumed gap between a thinking mind and an acting body makes it impossible to understand how people move from a passive to an active state. The presumption of bodies already in motion, what dance takes as its normative condition, could bridge the various splits between mind and body, subject and object, and process and structure that have been so difficult for understandings of social life to negotiate. Many observers of the current political scene have claimed that political action has shown itself to be futile, at least when judged by standards posed by past attempts to improve society.
Others have suggested that existing politics, such as it is, requires an absolutely new set of historical and theoretical criteria for assessing the efficacy of any movement for social change. Not only must dance be specified as a cultural practice, but both its resources and its limitations as a reference for supplementing the vocabulary of political theory need to be acknowledged as well. Finally, performance theory invites an evaluation of Ailey’s choreography not simply as dance artifact, but as the focus of a larger experience.
Ailey’s performance has always infused the Western-defined concert dance event with African-inspired participation. Different audiences experience Ailey’s work in substantially different ways, and in much of his choreography Ailey exploited the tension between his audience’s expectations and his dancers’ abilities. Ailey’s choreographic themes, phrase structuring, uses of music, character, and narrative can be understood in terms of their efforts to create a multifaceted representation of African American experience.
This compositional strategy emerged as a key component of his performance that challenged both a core African American audience and cultural outsiders. As if by design The Alvin Ailey American Dance Center has celebrated over 50 years of work performing to an estimated 18 million people in more than 67 countries and has trained more than 3,000 students annually from all over the world. Reference(s) Julia L. Foulkes, 2002 Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey Publisher: University of North Carolina Press.
Place of Publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Page Number: 179. Thomas F. Defrantz, 2004 Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Page Number: vii. Andree Grau, Stephanie Jordan, 2000 Europe Dancing: Perspectives on Theatre Dance and Cultural Identity. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London. Page Number: 203. Brian G. Rose, 1986, Television and the Performing Arts: A Handbook and Reference Guide to American Cultural Programming. Publisher: Greenwood Press.
Place of Publication: New York. Page Number: 44. April Sgro Riddle, 1993, Article Title: Corporate Support of Dance Education. Journal Title: Arts Education Policy Review. Volume: 94. Issue: 4. Page Number: 22. Kariamu Welsh Asante, 1993, Article Title: African-American Dance in Curricula: Modes of Inclusion. Journal Title: JOPERD–The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. Volume: 64. Issue: 2. Page Number: 48+. Randy Martin, 1990 Performance as Political Act: The Embodied Self. Publisher: Bergin & Garvey. Place of Publication: New York. Page Number: xi. Jane C.
Desmond, 1997, Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Publisher: Duke University Press. Place of Publication: Durham, NC. Page Number: 4. Annemarie Bean, 1999, A Sourcebook of African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements. Publisher: Routledge. Place of Publication: London. Page Number: 92 Karen W. Hubbard, Pamela A. Sofras, 1998 Journal Article Title: Strategies for Including African-American Culture in an Historically Euro-Centric Dance Curriculum. Title: JOPERD–The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. Volume: 69. Issue: 2. Page Number: 77+.
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