Last week was a full circle moment for 17-year-old Lauryn Simmons.
As a freshman at the Detroit School of Arts, one of the first pieces she danced in was the Alvin Ailey classic, “Revelations,” which explores themes of grief and joy while using African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and blues music.
Simmons, now a senior, had the opportunity to see Alvin Ailey dancers perform the piece in person during an event at the performing arts school March 2.
“It was such a round circle moment because we looked at those dancers on stage and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is where we want to be,’” she told BridgeDetroit. “And so, now that we really got to take a step back and see how these movements are done, we got to focus on how we really interpret ourselves as dancers and how we focus on our own movement and how to really be a true interpretation of dance.”
Dancers from Ailey II, the second company of the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, visited Detroit ahead of the main company’s performances at the Detroit Opera House March 17-19. As part of its community outreach, Ailey II put on a performance for students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District and offered workshops for Detroit School of Arts students and the public.
Founded in 1958 by dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has become a showcase for Black ballet and modern dancers around the world. The company has performed for an estimated 25 million people at theaters in 48 states and 71 countries and has reached audiences through television broadcasts, film screenings, and online platforms, according to its website.
Fellow DSA senior Nina Contreras, 17, said the performance of “Revelations” gave her goosebumps.
“I had an emotional moment when they performed ‘Revelations’ at our school because it really touched my soul,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe the idea that Alivin Ailey was at our school teaching us and then performing their work on our stage.”
A mix of the old and new school
Francesca Harper, the artistic director at Ailey II, said the dance company does community outreach in several of the cities they perform in. For the DSA workshops, Harper said she was a “fly on the wall” while she let her 12 dancers teach students some of the choreography performed at the school event.
“What’s great for the dancers is they’re not only talented dancers, but they are also learning to be ambassadors and leaders and teachers,” Harper said.
Detroit is one of many cities Alvin Ailey is stopping in for its 2023 North American tour, which started last month in Toronto. Audience members can expect to see a performance of “Revelations,” as well as new pieces like, “Are You In Your Feelings?” which Harpers calls “a love letter to Black culture.” Created by acclaimed choreographer Kyle Abraham, the dance features a mixtape of R&B and hip-hop artists such as Drake, Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar.
Then there’s “Roy’s Joys,” by dancer Twyla Tharp, which features a mix of ballet and modern dance to a 1940s and 50s jazz soundtrack by late trumpeter Roy Eldridge.
Both pieces will only be performed during opening night on March 17.
Performances on March 18 and March 19 will include a new production of the 1986 piece “Survivors,” Alvin Ailey’s tribute to Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Nelson Mandela was still in prison during that time for his fight against apartheid, and the piece coincided with rallies being held around the world calling for his release.
Featuring a Nelson Mandela figure trapped behind bars, the dance highlights a soundtrack from jazz drummer Max Roach and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. This will mark the first time “Survivors” has been performed since 1988, according to a news release.
When the dance company was first performing “Survivors” on tour in 1986, many cities, including Detroit, responded with bomb threats, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During a stop in Clearwater, Florida, theater dancers were set to perform when they received a phone call, saying there would be a shooting if the show went on.
“Alvin didn’t want to put the company under that kind of duress, but they (the dancers) all said, ‘We’re gonna go and perform,’” Harper said. So, it’s a really special piece. And with all that we’ve gone through politically now in our country, it’s really timely.”
Harper said it was important for both companies to make a visit to Detroit due to their mission of empowering and supporting people of color.
“Detroit embodies the same mission that we do with music and its communities,” she said. “Especially doing this outreach, being able to reach out to these young, aspiring artists and create those same opportunities and platforms to express themselves fully is really just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
Tickets for the Alvin Ailey shows are available at detroitopera.org and start at $29.