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Black History Month, day 24

Alvin Ailey, photo by Normand Maxon

Alvin Ailey is another one of those people, like Romare Bearden or James Baldwin, for whom the “African-American” part in “greatest African-American _______” is obviously true but also misleading and subtly derogatory. Romare Bearden isn’t only one of the greatest African-American collage artists, he’s one of the best collage artists, period; James Baldwin is one of the country’s best essayists and novelists; and Alvin Ailey is one of the best American choreographers–or so I have always heard. He certainly had a huge impact on the public awareness and appreciation of modern dance. According to the Kennedy Center website, “More than 23 million people in 71 countries have seen [Ailey’s 1960 masterwork and signature piece] Revelations–more than any other modern dance work.”

Ailey was born in Texas during the Depression, a time and place of tremendous poverty and danger for African-Americans. He and his mother, who raised him alone, moved to Los Angeles when he was 12, where he connected with his first dance teacher, Lester Horton. He danced for two years before he told his mother about it, and he knew her biases well; according to this brief biography, “When she first came to his dressing room and saw him in stage makeup, she slapped his face.” But then, he kept other important aspects about himself hidden from her view and others’. The person who was deeply upset that I wrote about Bayard Rustin’s being gay will not like this, but Ailey was too. He was part of that generation that was sexually active before anyone knew about this thing called Human  Immunodeficiency Virus, and he died of AIDS in 1989, asking his doctor to give his cause of death as “blood dyscrasia” (i.e., an unspecified blood disorder) so that his mother would not have to cope with public shame.

His company is going strong, and so are lots of other black choreographers and dancers, and integrated companies that draw on African and African-American dance traditions. I started this post thinking I’d catch Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when it comes to my area next month, and after poking around on the net, discovered that there is a festival of black choreographers that’s closer to home, much less expensive, and probably more adventurous, at Dance Mission Theater this weekend.

I love modern dance. Where I went to college, dance was an established major (this is rare; academia has little respect for anything done with the whole body) and there were lots of dance performances, often free or a couple bucks, and of a wide variety of genres due to the school’s strength in ethnomusicology. It was said that no one should graduate without taking Introduction to Dance. My senior year was very intense; I was working on two honors theses, one in religion and one in studio art. They occupied two different areas of my brain, one being a philosophical essay requiring analytical writing and the other being a series of big sculptures out of clay employing the skills of my hands and eyes. Still, both were highly philosophical and psychological in theme, and stressful to execute, especially over the same period of time, and I thought it was a good time to take one class in which I would demand nothing of myself but that I show up.  Introduction to Dance seemed just the thing.

I loved it. It was like sculpture in motion. Instead of making it with clay, we were making it with our bodies, and I didn’t worry about whether the choreography we created said something important or even all held together; I could just have fun. Come second semester, I signed up for Modern I. Sometime that winter, I went to a dance performance in the old chapel in the center of campus, and one piece, choreographed and danced by students, knocked my socks off. The dancers moved across the stage with the intensity of army ants. They swarmed up scaffolds and seemed to come from everywhere. The whole building came alive. If I had taken those classes and had that experience two years earlier, I thought then, I probably would have created a different major, something combining dance and sculpture, choreographing sculpture through time.

Ever since then, every couple of years I’ve looked for a dance class nearby, but modern is hard to find. It’s usually jazz or ballet, or something called modern that looks more like what I think of as music-video dancing. (A student in my college’s dance program said that when dancers from other schools visited, the performances contrasted sharply. How so, I asked. “They smile all the time, like you’re never supposed to stop smiling while you’re dancing.” Our dancers smiled only if the dance called for smiling. We were Arty. I liked that.) I took a “Pilates dance” class but it was like doing all the warmups without ever getting to the creative bit. I was looking for something like what I’d done in college: dance not only as craft and exercise, but as art. When I moved to San Francisco a year and a half ago, I looked up dance classes and of course there are lots, but I didn’t feel like I had time for anything but my drawing class on my day off. But reading about Ailey and his company has inspired me to do two things: buy tickets to the Dance Mission Theater for this weekend, and go to a modern dance class this Monday.


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