There’s never a shortage of sights, sounds, and spirit from the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company. The Company’s weeklong performance showcase at the Boch Center Wang Theater, from May 2 to May 5, was no exception. Roaring gunshots, celebratory chants and whistles, and repetitive lyrics from Michael Kiwanuka’s song “Black Man In A White World” were only a few of the many unforgettable sights and sounds that lingered, even hours after leaving the theater. Lazarus and Revelations, the two pieces presented during the May 4 evening performance, debuted in 2018 and 1960 respectively. While time separates these two dance premieres, Lazarus and Revelations equally captivated their audience with profound reflections on race relations in the United States, whimsical lighting and piercing sounds, and the dancers’ physical and emotional versatility.
Lazarus, an hour-long performance broken up into two acts, was choreographed by street dance and hip hop theater pioneer Rennie Harris. Harris, a Philadelphia native, drew inspiration from Philadelphia’s extensive step dance history — specifically, an intricate and quick style known as GQ. Combining Harris’s dance journey and Ailey’s breathtaking legacy, Lazarus delivered an ultimate tribute to Ailey’s vision for shining a light on racial inequalities and inspiring empathy and hope within viewers.
Lazarus’s Act I began with soft, peaceful piano chords, shortly interrupted by an unexpected gunshot. Dancers limped on stage, mirroring a sluggish zombie crowd in pursuit, twitching sporadically, and collapsing onto the floor. As more dancers emerged from a darkly lit upstage, the movement became more unsettling. This group section then transitioned into a memorable solo, where a male dancer elegantly mimicked a fish diving into water, feet flexed and ready to strike at any moment. Slowly, more dancers congregated onstage for a jubilant burst of energy, with fantastic head and shoulder undulations to the tune of Michael Kiwanuka’s song “Black Man In A White World.” As the music faded into a somber rhythm, dancers imitated getting shot, raising fists, and moving their arms like seaweed in the wind.
Act II started off right where Act I ended. Dancers waved melodic seaweed arms and rolled slowly downstage. Spiral touches, whistles and chants, and clapping drove the room’s energy up. With a nod to modern-day dance culture, Harris integrated popular dance moves, such as the dab, the nae nae, and the dougie, with the Philadelphia GQ step, leaving the viewer with a distorted sense of time. Dancers extended the festive mood with louder claps, stronger stomps, and effortless twirls. This cheerful mood faded back to somber violin music as a single man onstage cued a blackout.
Lazarus succeeded as a powerfully evocative piece that speaks to African-American history and oppression in the United States. Throughout the piece, Harris forced viewers to analyze seemingly innocent movement as sinister. Upon second inspection, the zombified twitching in Act I brought to mind images of lynched bodies swinging from trees and the seaweed arms in both Acts I and II stirred up stories about farms where African-American slaves toiled every day. It was hard to look away. Crystallizing horrific actions read in history books into movement invoked an eerie closeness to a horrific past and decades of cultural guilt, which lent Lazarus its potency. With Lazarus, Harris continued Ailey’s legacy of evocative movement and social commentary.
Harris sprinkled Lazarus with eye-catching production details, specifically lighting and sound. Dark lighting in Act I intensified giant backdrop shadows, heightening the dancers’ quickening pace and foreshadowing ominous scenes to come. Later in Act I, while the dancers huddled, a yellow glow summoned a hopeful feeling in the viewer, until this feeling was abruptly wiped away as dancers crumbled to the ground from gunshot sounds. Even more subtly, as dancers changed costumes from bare-chested, to purple draped shirts with jeans, to contemporary colorful streetwear, the lighting, along with the dancer’s facial expressions, brilliantly conveyed changes in the dance’s mood.
Timely noises and distinct sounds, as well as the dancers’ subsequent reactions, produced a beautifully immersive acoustic experience. The unruly gunshots, unabashed stomping, and whistling stirred alternating dire, jaded, and hopeful feelings about the dancer’s fate in the viewer. Harris’s masterful use of dissonant sound almost provoked a wish for even more clamor.
On the same night, Revelations immediately followed Lazarus’s Act II. Ailey’s most iconic piece, Revelations injected new meaning into the preceding performance of Lazarus. Alongside bluesy melodies and soulful gospel songs, dancers balanced effortlessly, gracefully turned, and wove their bodies through umbrellas and jellyfish-shaped props. The dancers’ technical caliber, especially during the slow spins and balancing poses, shone through in Revelations. Specifically, balletic and Horton-style modern phrase work offered a new lens to view how choreographers could construct pieces about yearning and hope around particular issues Ailey faced. Revelation’s sections, much like Lazarus’, inspired a spectrum of emotions, with colors and sounds that spoke to identity, rebirth, and hope.
Seeing Lazarus and Revelations back to back created a dynamic roller coaster experience for the viewer. Each production’s stunning and colorful lighting, evocative noises and music, and emotive dancers certainly cemented Lazarus and Revelations in Alvin Ailey's repertoire and dance history. Harmoniously bringing together two different choreographic perspectives, two different musical scores, and two different eras, the Alvin Ailey Company demonstrated how its dance could evolve over time, while still deliberately shedding light on important, enduring, and now-universal social issues.