It’s that time again when the Greater Washington Area welcomes the artistic splendor that has long characterized one of the world’s most celebrated dance troupes — the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
With seven programs, 11 diverse works and four D.C. debut works, the Kennedy Center’s Opera House serves as the venue when the Company, led by Artistic Director Robert Battle, will showcase a breathtaking repertory while emphasizing a heralded legacy established by their founder, Alvin Ailey.
And while each of the performed works has a unique story behind its formation, including the Alvin Ailey masterpiece and finale for all seven programs, “Revelations,” several others, in light of this being Black History Month, deserve special note.
Battle’s “Ella,” a rarely performed tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, makes its D.C. premier and has been re-staged as a duet in celebration of the centennial of her 1917 birth and set to her recording of “Air Mail Special” — with the dancers matching her uncanny scatting skills with lightning-fast, articulated movement.
“Masekela Langage,” a rarely-seen Ailey masterpiece, makes connections between the era of South African apartheid and the racially-triggered violence witnessed during 1960s Chicago set to the music of South American jazz composer and trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The work premiered in 1969 during Ailey’s first season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; a revival of the piece occurred at the same venue during the Company’s 50th anniversary in 2008.
Kyle Abraham, the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” brings another D.C. premiere with “Untitled America,” a three-piece work developed and completed over the last two years that puts the spotlight on the prison industrial complex and its devastating impact of Black families.
Veteran Ailey dancer Hope Boykin continues to spread her wings and illustrate the breadth of her talent with the D.C. premier of “r-Evolution, Dream,” set to new music composed by Ali Jackson (Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra). Her large ensemble work, inspired by sermons and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., combines creative storytelling and historic and original writings narrated by Tony Award-winning actor Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”).
Boykin traces the impetus and inspiration of her work to a 2015 visit with Battle to the National Museum of Civil and Human Rights.
“I felt the motivation to create something but at the time I had no idea what it would be,” said the Durham, North Carolina native who matriculated at Howard University, attended The Ailey School as both a student and intern and has choreographed two other works previously performed by the Company.
“I downloaded several of Dr. King’s speeches, began reading and then took it into the studio to begin creating the work,” she said. “Mr. Battle liked the idea and continued to encourage me to keep working on it. Looking back I remember that I was once the kind of person who didn’t always take advantage of the opportunities before me. This time, I did.”
Battle describes Boykin’s work as “wonderful and timely.”
“Some of the most important words spoken by Dr. King weren’t ‘I Have a Dream.’ He said I have a vision, a dream; there’s revolution in dreams,” Battle said.
Boykin says she’s since discovered a new self, perhaps akin to the ugly duckling’s transformation into a swan, as she now grabs everything she sees so that “I don’t miss anything.”
“I have found that I’m a lot more creative than I gave myself credit,” she said. “Every gift we have is really for us to share with others and for service to others. And while the emphasis among today’s educators may be science, technology and math, those with more creative, artistic abilities, should not only claim their gifts but be proud of them. We have a voice and a compassion that makes us unique — I share that message with youth wherever I go and encourage them to become the person they were meant to be.”
She adds that while the road on which she has traveled has been amazing and exciting, more than she could have dreamed, she knows it could have only happened because of those who supported her along the way.
“Sometimes they may have been standing in the wings but I felt their love and could hear them saying ‘you can do it,'” she said. “I always wanted dance to be an integral part of my life — but getting paid to do it has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. I’m a walking miracle.”
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which opened Feb. 7, continues performances at the Kennedy Center thru Sunday, Feb. 12.