Choreographer Alvin Ailey’s “Blood Memories”: Revelations Turns 50

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"This year marks the 50th anniversary of Revelations, the choreographic masterpiece of the late Alvin Ailey. The dance tells the story of the African-American experience and the struggle to resist and transcend oppression seeded by slavery and arrive at a collective liberation as a people.

Since its New York City debut in 1960, Revelations has been performed in 71 countries on six continents. The musical score features traditional spirituals — some of them echoing songs Joe Carter sang for us, including "Wade in the Water" and "Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?"

In “Celebrating Revelations at 50,” Alvin Ailey and artistic director Judith Jamison reflect on the meaning, spiritual roots, and enduring legacy of this dance work. As Ailey describes:

"The first dances I ever made were what I like to call ‘blood memories.’ My roots are also in the gospel churches of the South where I grew up. Holy blues. Paeans to joy. Anthems to the human spirit."

In the finale of its concluding suite “Move Members Move!” the female dancers are outfitted in their Sunday church best with long yellow dresses, matching fans, and elegant hats. As company member Briana Reed explained to The New York Times, Ailey dancers are trained to hold their hands and elbows in very specific ways: “not by your hip, like you’re being sassy, but up near your ribs, so that it gives the upper body a more dignified carriage.”

The significance of dignity is something Joe Carter spoke about too. The spirituals provided a path for expressing and claiming one’s dignity within the constraints of a demeaning, all-encompassing racist social system. As Joe Carter tells it, they helped slaves to articulate hope through song:

"[T]hey were the expression of the great pain and the sorrow. But at the same time, they were always looking upward. They were always reaching. There was always some level of hope, as opposed to the concept of the blues. The blues was just singing about your troubles, and there was no hope. But there’s always the glory hallelujah someplace saying, ‘Oh, and on that glory hallelujah, then we fly.’"

Joe Carter’s voice carries forward through the words of Judith Jamison describing Ailey’s artistic vision for the rousing concluding phrase of Revelations:

"He understood about when someone would chug down the aisle because they had that spirit going through them. They weren’t just doing a dance. They actually felt something. And it was their great faith, and their great belief. We are joyous in that we see hope from despair. Always. It is never-ending hope."

(photo: Ailey Archives)

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