For over 50 years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has filled stages with glorious works celebrating African-American heritage. From Ailey's rousing, gospel-inspired "Revelations" and haunting "Night Creature" to new company artistic director Robert Battle's sensuous, swirling duet "Unfold" to a Gustave Charpentier aria sung by Leontyne Price, the repertory touches every emotion. It's no surprise that the troupe ranks among the most popular in the world.
Captions by Valerie Gladstone
Pioneering Cleo Parker Robinson established her ensemble and school in Denver as a grass-roots organization in 1970, at a time when there was hardly any dance, let alone black dance, in the Rocky Mountain region. The company performs first-class works by great African-American choreographers like Katherine Dunham, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle and Ronald K. Brown; its acclaimed 16-year-old Summer Dance Institute trains dancers and choreographers to carry on the tradition.
When Ronald K. Brown's Evidence debuted in 1985, no one was prepared for his earthy and original movement choreographed to incredibly infectious music—reggae, spirituals, blues and funky rock. This style, rooted in the crouched stance, loose and thrusting body, arms and legs akimbo, of some West African dance and contemporary urban club dance, makes audiences want to get up and join his high jumping, hip swinging, dynamic troupe, in dances like "Grace" to Duke Ellington and "Upside Down" to Fela Kuti.
Reggie Wilson, Fist and Heel Performance Group founder, gives a sense of what he wants to accomplish when he explains his company's name. "Denied their drums, enslaved Africans in the Americas reinvented their spiritual dance traditions as a soulful art form that white authorities dismissed as merely ‘fist and heel worshipping…. .'" Often spending years on research for his profound, historically based works, Wilson fuses contemporary dance with the spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora, punctuating the movement with body percussion, aspirated breath, singing and shouts.
Dissatisfied with the contemporary dance scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar formed Urban Bush Women in 1984 to bring the stories of disenfranchised people to the stage. Working from a woman-centered perspective, Zollar wanted to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond. She has accomplished even more than that, with works like the funny "Batty Moves," celebrating female buttocks, and devastating "Shelter," about the homeless.
This year, Joan Myers Brown, who established Philadanco! 40 years ago as a community arts organization, walked away with the Philadelphia Award for her work as an artist and ambassador of African-American dance. Her sleek and powerful company has toured the country bringing together famed artists of the past like George Faison, who choreographed the joyous "Suite Otis" on the same program with Zollar, whose sassy and sensuous "Walkin, Talkin, Signifying Blues Hips, Lowdown Throwdown" always brings the house to its feet.
David Rousseve has been making evening length dance/theatre pieces, combining original non-linear narrative, engaged, propulsive movement and bursts of bold, poetic visual imagery ever since beginning his company Reality in 1989. He draws upon what he calls the accessibility and grit of both traditional and pop African-American culture and his downtown sensibility. Equally eclectic, his movement vocabulary derives from modern, classical, hip-hop and release techniques.
Over the past 40 years, innumerable, mesmerizing dances have poured from Garth Fagan, the Tony Award-winning choreographer of the hit Broadway musical The Lion King. Working at his base in Rochester, N.Y., the Jamaican-born choreographer developed a totally original style that combines balletic rigor and precision with a looseness of body and bursts of energy that propel dancers into whirling diagonals and thrilling, high, jagged leaps. Drawing on his Caribbean roots, he creates abstract dances that his formidable dancers manage to transform into unforgettably human stories.
Bebe Miller has been making dances for over 25 years, exploring the visceral, unruly edges of heart and psyche that inform our daily lives, in hopes of finding a physical language for the human condition. In recent years, she has been investigating a mix of text, performance and visual presentation to expand this language. As collaboration is fundamental to her choreographic process, she has worked with composers, visual artists, designers, writers/directors and filmmakers, as well as members of her "virtual company."
Started in 1976 by Larry Phillips to serve the Brooklyn community as a center where creative African-American talent could be forged and tempered, the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center, named for the brilliant educator and dancer, has supported and helped developed nearly 200 artists, among them Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Ronald K. Brown. Many of these dancers and choreographers have returned to teach and inspire new generations, as well as to perform for the community where they first started.
New York City Ballet principal dancer Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, inspired by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it is known far and wide as the institution that broke the racist stereotype that blacks could not perform ballet; today the company is legendary for its grace, technique and expressiveness. Financial difficulties have temporarily forced the closing of the first company but the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, led by former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson, is back in action.