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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - 'Hymn'

Why dance?

by Mary Ellen Hunt

March 11, 2004 -- Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

"Hymn" takes you on a journey of listening to the voices of the dancers. I asked Anna Deavere Smith in 1993 to interview the dancers and ask them "Why are you still here? Alvin is dead. And what's different now? Why are you still here? What's relevant about being in this company? Do you miss him? Why are you still dancing? What's important to you in this company? Why do you dance?" The answers were amazing. I tried to choreograph what they answered.

-- Judith Jamison, March 2004

In 1993, only four years after the passing of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company's founder, artistic director Judith Jamison gathered together her dancers to create a tribute to the man who had so deeply influenced them all. The work, "Hymn," became instantly a kind of touchstone for the company, and Jamison's work and Ailey's legacy were the subjects of a PBS documentary a few years later, "A Hymn for Alvin Ailey."

During their recent season in New York, and on tour, the Ailey company performed Jamison's now ten-year old tribute, but with only two of the original dancers, and with a cast that, for the most part, had never even known Ailey himself. On tour in California, Jamison shared some thoughts on the revival.

A lot of the people who were originally in "Hymn" were the speakers (Desmond Richardson, Michael Thomas, Sarita Allen, Elizabeth Roxas and Troy Powell), but now the company has different dancers.
Right, except for Renee [Robinson]. Renee is still speaking her own words, isn't that amazing? Renee is celebrating her 23rd year with the company.

How does it change the work to have new dancers in it?
I think each generation of dancer informs a work differently -- and they're supposed to. They validate what they do. The first thing they're supposed to do is imitate, and once they've imitated, then they validate it by being themselves, by the honesty of their own selves. If you continue to imitate, that to me is not flattery. That is not what dancing is about. You can start that way, but then you have to transcend that and become honest with what you are feeling, what it means to you.

So the work, the words become the music. That is what you have to trip on, and that has to become your music. It means something different in this day and in time to each dancer. When Troy Powell says, "We don't have war," it means something else to a dancer now, so their body is going to speak something differently.

In some cases, I've changed some of the movement to adapt to that dancer's body, but basically it remains the same dance. It is how the dancer informs the movement. It's like "Revelations" is the same dance, it's the same steps, but each generation informs it differently, just by the way their bodies move.

"Hymn" especially though was so personal to the people who came into it. Was it difficult for the dancers to come into the roles?
As a matter of fact, that was a concern of mine, until I heard them say how amazed and impressed they were by seeing it the first time, and how confident they were to step into those roles, how unintimidated they were by having to do the roles.

On December 31st of last year, the original people came back and did their roles. And it was awesome and fantastic. And then the next day, the cast that performs it now went back into those roles.

And that is as dance is -- it is as ephemeral as it is.

"Hymn" (1993)
A Head of State - Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines, Glenn A. Sims, & Company
Spiritual Walking - The Company
Never Spoken - Dudley Williams
I Have Nothing - Clifton Brown, Venus Hall, Vernard J. Gilmore, Jeffrey Gerodias, Jamar Roberts
Dance - The Company
Survivor - Guillermo Asca & Company
Cathedral - Linda Celeste Sims, Dion Wilson
The Search for Perfection - Renee Robinson & Company
Cathedral - Amos J. Machanic, Jr.
Black Dress - Linda Celeste Sims
Whores in a Whore House Comin' to Church - Matthew Rushing
The Mask - Dwana Adiaha Smallwood
A Message - Jeffrey Gerodias

At Cal Performances's presentation of AAADT's Berkeley season at Zellerbach Hall, the audience welcomed the company back like family. Ailey has a way of setting an atmosphere of both excitement and familiarity, and it is the general consensus among long-time company watchers that this is a reflection of the two guiding spirits of the company, Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison.

Jamison's "Hymn" opens with Ailey's own voice cast over an empty stool standing in a downstage spotlight. The stage seems bare only for a moment, before dancers flood on the stage in an imposing undulating mass before a shimmering red cyc designed by Timothy Hunter.

Anna Deavere Smith takes up the recorded voiceovers, speaking the words of each dancer in his or her own cadences. It's a device that once served to allow the dancer a bit of emotional distance from their sometimes very personal revelations. Now though, it feels like a thread connecting the new faces back to the hopes and dreams of a generation past.

"A Head of State" describes Ailey's funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, with Bahiyah Sayyed-Gaines and Glen A. Sims setting a deeply spiritual tone. They embody one of this company's greatest strengths, which is that they can make the audience naturally empathize with them. We feel moved because the dancers allow themselves to feel moved.

No one is more moving than Dudley Williams, who at 65 is still a powerful spirit, although set in an increasingly frail body. In "Never Spoken," Williams offers his personal recollections of conversations with Ailey and a bittersweet regret creeps into Deavere's reading which seems to come out through his body, "I never did say the words 'I love you.'"

At times, Jamison seems to have made perfect matches between past and present dancers. Jeffrey Gerodias, along with Vernard Gilmore and Jamar Roberts, offers meaning for every movement in Troy Powell's soliloquy, "I Have Nothing," which wonders how his generation can understand slavery or war when they've never struggled with those things. And when we hear the words "I believe in spirit - go to the wall... GO TO THE WALL," it's hard to imagine anyone else but Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell with her tough confident walk.

I could go on at length about the dancers. Matthew Rushing, in "Whores in a Whore House Comin' to Church," is utterly superhuman, as is Dwana Adiaha Smallwood in "The Mask." But in fact it was during "The Mask" that I finally realized that "Hymn" is not really about Alvin Ailey the man, but about Alvin Ailey the company. But even more, it is about what compels dancers -- and us, as human beings. In the final epilogue, Deavere Smith comes back to Ailey's words, "Dance came from the people." Indeed, never has it been clearer that dance is the people who dance.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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