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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

"Revelations" and Beyond
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Young African-American choreographer Donald McKayle mingled Dunham's use of indigenous culture with Primus' insistent social statements and choreographed time bombs with deceptively simple names like "Games" and "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder." Starkly intense Anna Sokolow infused Graham's technique with the Stanislavsky method of acting, staging merciless raids into man's interior emotional jungle. Jose Limon attacked what he called ballet's "empty formalism" with choreography designed to be the "voice and conscience" of his time. They were not alone during the 1950s: John Butler, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Lucas Hoving, Pearl Lang, Murray Louis, Alwin Nikolais, Glen Tetley, Paul Taylor, and others charged boldly into dance's uncharted territory.

New choreographic approaches were everywhere. Dancers sorted through styles and tried different techniques, teachers, and choreographers with iconoclastic ease. And eclecticism and experimentation in the studio led to eclecticism and experimentation onstage - eventually, to a storming of the theater's fourth wall and a downright rejection of the proscenium stage.

In short, the mood in the dance world in the 1950s and '60s was one of manifest destiny: new frontiers were everywhere for everyone -- except for the black ballet dancer. Eventually, of course, a token few broke the color barrier, but most ballet-trained black dancers were forced to take their talent elsewhere. Some fled to Europe. Others stayed. This was important in the history of African-American modern dance, for those dancers rejected by ballet because they were black were embraced by modern dance because they were good. For instance, although Talley Beatty was a guest artist once in 1947 with the New York City Ballet's predecessor, Ballet Society, he found an artistic home as a performer with Katherine Dunham, and later, as a choreographer, with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. For most dancers at that time, ballet and modern were like oil and water, but for the ballet-trained black dancer, modern dance was a welcome outlet. At first, this phenomenon had only a subtle impact, but later, when it snowballed, critics announced the discovery of this bold, new fusion of modern dance technique, jazz, and ballet. Fusion wasn't new; it was a creative solution to a stifling situation and an innovative stroke of genius that had now become a stylistic commonplace in American modern dance. It was at the core of Katherine Dunham's technique and a chief component of Talley Beatty's brilliance and the promise of another young choreographer, who garnered tremendous attention when he emerged on the modern dance scene near the end of the 1950s -- Alvin Ailey.

Back in the 1950s, the African-American modern dance community was basically one big, family. Unlike today, few companies performed year-round. Instead, at various times when they had amassed enough material, choreographers would fly into a creative frenzy. Dancers rehearsed day and night for six to eight weeks. And "companies" gave brief "seasons" at one or two preferred dance spaces around town, like the space William Kolodney had made synonymous with modern dance -- the Theresa Kaufman Auditorium in the 92nd Street YMHA. In 1958, that's exactly what happened when Ailey teamed up with Dunham dancer/choreographer Ernest Parham, guest artist Talley Beatty, and a handful of talented dancers for his first New York concert.

Ordinarily, that would have been it for the year, but something happened. Audiences went wild. Critics raved. And Ailey wisely scheduled a second concert before the sound of the applause from the first had faded. In December 1958, the first full-scale concert of the new Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with guest artist Carmen de Lavallade, was given at the YMHA. Again critics raved. "Blues Suite," which was premiered on that program, was a huge success, with the raw beauty of the gut-bucket blues, which inspired and accompanied the dance, and the dancers' vivid performances. But its power stemmed primarily from Ailey's dramatic re-creation of the fleeting pleasures and permanent frustrations of life on the brink in backwater Texas. There had never been anything like it. On January 31, 1960, with the premiere of "Revelations," a masterpiece that spanned the emotional spectrum of the spirituals, from the opening solemnity of "I Been Buked" to the closing celebration of "Rocka My Soul," Ailey topped his previous success and consolidated his reputation as a talent to watch. He was on his way to establishing the first predominantly black dance company, since Dunham's, that would become hugely popular, internationally famous, and stable enough to build into an American institution.

Even as Ailey was making his mark, the social, political, and cultural shifts of the 1960s sparked a flurry of innovations from a number of different directions. Sally Banes reported in TERPSICHORE IN SNEAKERS that dance critic Jill Johnston had issued a call for something new, since "the old was really beginning to look its age." Neither the subjects nor the techniques of the dances that proliferated from the next generation of choreographers (those who came after Graham, Humphrey-Weidman, Holm, Tamiris, and Horton) were new. The death of the WPA Federal Dance Project, the end of the Second World War, and then the cultural conservatism of the Cold War years seemed to sap the next generation of its revolutionary spirit, both politically and artistically.

All that began to change on the East Coast with Paul Taylor's "Seven New Dances" in 1957, as flurry of experimentation occurred in Greenwich Village and at an unlikely performance venue called Judson Memorial Church. The same was true on the West Coast at Ann Halprin's workshops in Marin County, California attended by, among others, budding choreographer Trisha Brown. African-American dancers and choreographers also began to process the political and social unrest brewing in the world around them and sort out how they wanted to respond to it.

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