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‘Revelations’ revealed

Times Staff Writer

AFTER more than 45 years, “Revelations” is not only the signature work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater but arguably the most beloved modern dance creation by anyone anywhere. Yet this 30-minute piece set to traditional folk hymns looked very different at its premiere in 1960: smaller in cast size but with additional sections. Ailey himself, who died in 1989, called it “a gigantic suite of spirituals” that “didn’t reach its real popularity until it was edited.” Even its style has changed over the years.

The choreographer was 29 in 1960, and his company was just 2. The opening section of “Revelations,” he recalled in his autobiography, “was about trying to get up out of the ground. The costumes and set would be colored brown, an earth color, for coming out of the earth, for going into the earth.

“The second part,” he continued, “was something that was very close to me -- the baptismal, the purification rite. Its colors would be white and pale blue. Then there would be the section surrounding the gospel church, the holy rollers, and all that church happiness. Its colors would be earth tones, yellow and black.”

As the Ailey company heads for engagements at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, from Wednesday to next Sunday, and the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara on March 7 -- with the evolved, millennial “Revelations” scheduled on every program -- dancers from each stage of the work’s development and others close to Ailey’s world share their memories and insights in what follows, helping us find new facets in something that many dancegoers think they know as well as anyone on the stage.

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Origins

LULA ELIZABETH COOPER, Ailey’s mother, in “Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey,” 1995: “He was baptized by Reverend Sandy Taplin when he was seven in what we called a tank, a mudhole. They call them lakes now. It was man-built for people to get baptized in. The pastor would take the child out to this muddy hole while the deacons had sticks to run the water moccasins away so he could get the baptism done. The people on the bank were singing ‘Wade in the water, children. God’s gonna trouble the water.’ That’s where that came from in ‘Revelations.’ ”

JENNIFER DUNNING, “Alvin Ailey, A Life in Dance,” 1996: “In New York, in Donald McKayle’s ‘They Call Her Moses,’ a piece about Harriet Tubman, Alvin danced a solo called ‘Run Brother Run’ that McKayle believes may have been an inspiration for the ‘Sinner Man’ trio in ‘Revelations.’ Carrying a child across his shoulders, he also crossed a billowing river on his knees. On a visit to Los Angeles in 1958, Alvin saw a dance by James Truitte that was set to spirituals and ended with ‘Elijah Rock,’ as ‘Revelations’ did, until Alvin saw that the audience responded more to ‘Rocka My Soul.’ ”

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MERLE DERBY, original cast: “It started with him doing research. He went to churches in Harlem and there, from gospel groups, he drew movements that were church-related.

“With Alvin, you had to have a basic technique, but he also wanted you to project the emotional. Alvin pulled the best out of each and every one of us.”

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The first version

MICKEY BORD, a production assistant when the Ailey company began, now an Ailey archivist: “ ‘Revelations’ now opens with ‘I’ve Been ‘Buked,’ but originally it began with ‘I Am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow.’ Alvin had seven people in the original company. All the people who danced for him were his friends. He knew them mostly from Broadway. They used to have other jobs and did rehearsals at night. The original dancers were fabulous, but when others did it, it changed a little: They put their own interpretations in it. It’s always very, very good, but to me the first company that did it was incredible.”

DORENE RICHARDSON, original cast: “I was in the original company in 1958. Alvin spoke to us about wanting to portray the feelings of the spirituals that he grew up with as a child and that always meant so much to him.”

MYRNA WHITE, former Ailey dancer: “I joined the Ailey company in 1960, but from what I understand, I was not in the original cast of ‘Revelations.’ There were others before me. Alvin gave us the background of the people he knew at church, he told stories about them, and we got a real sense of the people we were dancing about. In the baptism sequence, he would tell us about the water, the movement representing it, stepping into it and the sprays of the water in our face: He really went into detail. And what was so marvelous about him, he allowed us to use our own experiences within the outline of what he was choreographing.

“A lot of people say that the original casts had more soul, more understanding, more feeling. But that was because we were not just doing steps. We were characters, and there was a reason for every movement.”

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DON MARTIN, original cast, teacher and authority on choreographer Lester Horton: “At the time when we were doing ‘Revelations,’ it had a totally different meaning about it -- we took it to church, so to speak. I don’t see that in ‘Revelations’ now. I don’t know what’s being lost about it, but I don’t feel that kind of excitement. My work with Lester Horton was by far the greatest work I’ve ever been involved with. I can’t say that it was Alvin. I think that Alvin, God knows, has done a great deal and should be credited. But I don’t want to deify him.”

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The opening and revisions

RICHARDSON: “At the premiere at the 92nd Street Y, when the piece was over and the curtain came down, there was dead silence, no applause, and we looked at each other. But when the curtain came up, it was thunderous, unbelievable. They wouldn’t let us go.”

CARMEN DE LAVALLADE, dancer, choreographer and an Ailey friend since junior high school: “It was magnificent and just tore the place apart. People were jumping all over the place. It’s one of those moments when you put something together and you don’t know really why or how it gets there -- it appears like magic. I don’t think he ever expected it to do this. He had no idea that it would grow to be something of a phenomenon. And neither did I. When you’re younger, you never realize that your best friend is going to be as famous as Coca-Cola.”

DUNNING, in “Alvin Ailey, A Life in Dance”: “Late one night in 1962, just before the company was to leave for Jacob’s Pillow, [James] Truitte recalled, Alvin prevailed on him to create a solo drawn from Truitte’s Horton technique. That solo was ‘I Want to Be Ready,’ one of the most haunting dances in ‘Revelations.’ ”

DUDLEY WILLIAMS, Ailey company dancer from 1964: “ ‘I Want to be Ready’ was a terror and a challenge -- all those balances and no place to stop until the very end. Jimmy Truitte put it together as a Lester Horton study, and Alvin approved it. The weight in it comes from someone always pushing you down, Mr. Truitte told me. From the very first movement, you try to get out of the muck that you’re in. It’s a struggle to keep alive, and you give it up at the very end.

“When the song lyrics say you’re getting ready to die, so you don’t do certain things -- like gambling -- I used to [mimic] rolling dice. Alvin let it go for a while, and then he came backstage one day and said, ‘That’s enough, cut it out.’ ”

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The impact

ALLEN HUGHES, first New York Times review, July 23, 1962: “In ‘Revelations’ there are pleading, struggle, protest, pathos, humor and much more. Some of these qualities are expressed in magnificent solos by Mr. Ailey and James Truitte; others are given to the entire group. All were communicated on this occasion with stunning directness and intensity.”

MASAZUMI CHAYA, associate director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “I first saw ‘Revelations’ in 1970. But I made a mistake and went to the wrong theater, and it happened to be a Polish folk dance team. So I watched the first act and then ran to the right place. And it was already the second intermission there. I sneaked in without buying a ticket, and I saw ‘Revelations.’ A big surprise after the Polish folk dance -- which was very pleasant, everyone the same size. I came to ‘Revelations’ and there were all different sizes and colors. It was a shock: Oh, my God, people on the stage! That was my first impression.”

GARTH FAGAN, choreographer, Garth Fagan Dance and “The Lion King”: “I am fortunate in that I have seen ‘Revelations’ ever since 1960 all over America and all over the world. It is a beautiful, perfect dance. It speaks so broadly to mankind, something that becomes very clear when you’re sitting in a foreign audience. Most people believe in something bigger than them and outside of them that can help them in their lives, and ‘Revelations’ speaks to that so clearly. ‘Fix Me, Jesus’ is a perfect duet between a man and a woman aspiring to the Creator. It could be ‘Fix Me, Moses,’ ‘Fix Me, Muhammad,’ I don’t care. It’s ‘Fix me, the Supreme Being.’

“And let’s not forget the beautiful lighting -- that was a brand new thing of lighting people of color onstage so that you could see the range of color that we have in our complexions. It used to be that we’d just get washed out and look gray.”

BRENDA DIXON GOTTSCHILD, author and professor emeritus, dance studies, Temple University: “Even though I grew up in Harlem, I had never seen dancing like this. Everything we were supposed to aspire to as young people came from the Europeanist worldview. So this was something totally new -- hearing gospel music on the concert stage and seeing African-based movement fused in such an ingenious way with ballet and modern dance.

“I think what ‘Revelations’ did was broaden the course of American concert dance. I feel Ailey and his work was as important to modern dance as Balanchine was to ballet.”

BILL T. JONES, choreographer, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company: “It’s a great work and I was taken by it on every level, but its dance values are at the service of something else: a sense of spirituality, a sense of community and a sense of identity. If you compare ‘Revelations’ and Alvin’s great works to Merce Cunningham’s, you can understand something about how I look at the two. Merce I call the choreographer’s choreographer. Alvin did something that was important as art but ultimately probably more important for weighing in heavily into the discourse in America about identity and race. Merce’s accomplishment has something to do with what you can call the pure beauty of the dancing. Which one do I as a younger artist feel more attached to? In a way, I probably feel closer to Merce.”

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The downside

DE LAVALLADE: “He loved the piece, but when you create something that absolutely everybody adores and then choreograph other pieces, everybody expects something better. It puts a pressure on you. It was hard for him because how can you compete with something that strong? How can you top it?”

SYLVIA WATERS, artistic director, Ailey II: “I think it was something that haunted him for a long time. He referred to it as an albatross around his neck, but he did resign himself and resolve that. I heard him once in another interview say, ‘The dancers love it, audiences love it, we should do it.’ ”

JONES: “In the dance world, there’s what is called the double curse of the ‘Revelations’ effect. I know I’ve heard Paul Taylor speak about ‘Aureole’ as a work that people felt defined him and how everyone expected him to remake it again and again. I have a work called ‘D-Man in the Waters,’ which was very successful from its inception. We had to fight for years not to be defined by it -- not to always put it at the end of a program so the public will leave feeling good no matter what they felt about the first part of the program.”

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Dancing it

RICHARDSON: “The choreography is still the same, but it’s not done the same way. It’s become very acrobatic, and unfortunately I find that the emotional qualities are missing sometimes. I see technique, I see high extensions. But what does that mean? What does that have to do with what you’re dancing about?

“What Alvin always wanted was for you to be a human being onstage, and whatever passion or feelings you had, you brought them to the piece -- he wanted the raw emotions to come out in the movement. That’s the way he danced. He wasn’t a great technician, but you couldn’t keep your eyes off him when he was on the stage.”

ELIZABETH ROXAS, former Ailey company member: “I was in the company from 1984 to 1997. And like most of the dancers, the first thing I did was ‘Revelations,’ the opening and closing sections. But one of the things I started learning immediately was ‘Fix Me, Jesus.’ It was such an amazing experience doing it. When Mr. Ailey choreographed ‘Revelations,’ it came from his growing up in the South -- but I grew up in the Philippines as a Catholic. However, he always tried to pass on to us that we had to dig deeply and bring our own experience into the movement.

“As time goes by, dancers become more technically able to do things, and Mr. Ailey liked to test his dancers, to see how far they could go. But the spirit stays the same, and it’s Mr. Ailey’s spirit that always touches me.”

TROY POWELL, associate artistic director, Ailey II: “Mr. Ailey wanted everybody, no matter what race you were, to understand his humanity, his African American heritage and culture. And he also wanted the other races to learn from him, mainly what it’s like being African American.

“And that’s why it’s so great for a lot of dancers who aren’t African American who join the company. A lot of them aren’t aware of the struggles that African Americans have gone through, and it’s very hard to dance ‘Revelations’ if you haven’t struggled. Sometimes when I’ve watched the company and seen a non-African American, for instance Masazumi Chaya, who danced with the company for many years, sometimes I believed him more than I believed some African Americans.”

HECTOR MERCADO, former Ailey dancer: “I know when I first learned it, back in, I think, 1970, I was just taught the steps and wasn’t taught any extra feelings about it. That just sort of grew. And I didn’t realize until we started performing it how the audience response validates you and inspires you to do it better and gives you the energy to get you through the end of a long night or end of a long week or end of a long season. Even now, when you come to expect it, it’s intoxicating. For the dancers, it’s instant gratification. This is what you do for your life, and you’re being told right then and there that what you’re doing is great. It’s the journey and the joy of your life. Nothing compares.”

RONNI FAVORS, rehearsal director and former company member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Being inside and being outside ‘Revelations’ is similar in terms of the emotional experience. Except for a few performance jitters, it felt exactly the same as I imagined when I saw it. The music is so nourishing, and the movement allows the person performing it to have a full experience with it. Once the music starts, something happens, something takes over. Dancing it was like a dream come true, a deep prayer or wish that was answered.”

JUDITH JAMISON, artistic director and former company member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “I did ‘Fix Me, Jesus’ for 2 1/2 years. Carrying the umbrella [in another section] was an afterthought -- I thought I was being totally demoted. But Alvin changed it for me. When I did it, I used to stay onstage a little longer at the end because he wanted me to. Now we’re back to the original.”

RENEE ROBINSON, company member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “I got into the company in 1981, but before that I was in a workshop company run by Kelvin Rotardier. And he started to tell us stories about ‘Revelations,’ trying to get us to understand who these people were that Mr. Ailey remembered. In the last section, you have to remember that it’s a hot, sunny day, and back in that time there were no air-conditioned buildings. You were in your best dress, a hat, and you used a fan to keep yourself cool.

“The women were bigger, and we had to have more weight in our movement. And I remember asking myself how could I move as if I were heavier.”

DWANA ADIAHA SMALLWOOD, company member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “From watching it, I almost think it’s missing something: me. I feel ‘Revelations’ needs me as much as I need it. I just feel so connected -- like it’s telling my story -- that I feel that the story can’t be told unless I’m telling it too. No matter where I’m in it that night, I feel that I want to be telling the story every time it’s told.

“Mr. Ailey was gone before I joined the company. But by doing ‘Revelations,’ I feel that I knew him. I grew up with him. He was my father, my teacher, my minister, everything. Because ‘Revelations’ is like second skin to so many of us. “

AMOS J. MACHANIC JR., company member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: “Everybody asks us if we get tired of dancing ‘Revelations’ because we do it all the time. But you can bring your spirit to it in a new way every day. Sometimes when for some reason we haven’t done ‘Revelations’ for two days in a particular week, I almost go through ‘Revelations’ withdrawal -- I really feel that I need to do it.”

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Watching it grow

WATERS: “I saw the first performance at the 92nd Street Y. It was mesmerizing, larger than life, and after that I saw a few incarnations until, I think, 1964 or ’65, by which time it had been refined and reached the definitive version that we know today.

“It always looks so easy, but it was difficult because it needed a weight and a depth of feeling -- you couldn’t just skim through the steps. I’m always asking the dancers for honesty. It’s always a test of their integrity.”

FAVORS: “ ‘Rocka My Soul’ represents a churchgoing experience. Churchgoing experiences now are more exuberant and demonstrative, but it was very different in the 1930s and ‘40s. And we’re trying to represent that generation’s standpoint where you dressed up to go to church, where there was a certain decorum. The joy and exuberance that comes through that has to be presented through that particular filter.”

WILLIAMS: “When AIDS came out, friends of mine were dying left and right, and I used to bring the memory of someone with me onto the stage for the solo. That was my gift to people who had passed away, and after three or four measures of music, I would let them go, because I had to concentrate on what I was doing. I would bring on different people, and Alvin used to ask me, ‘Who are you bringing on tonight?’ ”

JAMISON: “The challenge is making sure that the dancers understand the complexity of its simplicity. Got that? The man made a masterpiece -- you don’t have to embellish it. Alvin always wanted us to add ourselves to it, not rechoreograph it. One of the things that he’d often say to us after a performance was, ‘Would you please do my steps?’ ”

ROBINSON: “Even now, when I sit in the audience and watch a performance, I’m always amazed that at a certain point, I stop watching it as a person who dances it, and I stop watching it to see what the dancers are doing. At some point it switches to, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’ I don’t know if I’m caught up in the energy of the audience or if it’s just that it’s so simple and so beautiful that you sort of give over, you become involved. You understand why it’s a joy to come and see it over and over again.”

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Contact Lewis Segal, The Times’ dance critic, at calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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