Alvin Ailey and Cal Performances celebrate 50 years of inclusion, dance

Hannah Cooper/Senior Staff

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The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, or AAADT, was founded in 1958, on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. Its mission? To develop a community of creation — performance art that unites people of all races, ages, and backgrounds through African American heritage and that of other cultures.

Ten years after its inception, the company began an influential relationship with Cal Performances — this year marks their partnership’s 50th anniversary. Outside of its theater in New York City, AAADT performs more consistently in Berkeley than in any other city.

To AAADT, and to current company artistic director, Robert Battle, “American” is the most important part of its name. According to Battle, the troupe’s intention was to echo Langston Hughes’ poem: “I, too, am America.” With the company’s time-defying masterpiece “Revelations,”which has been a staple of AAADT’s repertoire at Cal Performances over the past 50 years, it hopes to continue this message of resilience and hope.  

Dance, as an art form, presents the possibility of myriad interpretations. All viewers bring unique perspectives to “Revelations,” allowing it to transcend time periods and political climates.

As an artistic organization, Cal Performances plays the critical role of deciding to whose art to give a platform. Cal Performances artistic director Matías Tarnopolsky views his role as that of a conveyor of ideas, pushing and questioning art forms that convey new truths. On a campus and in a world divided by ideology, Cal Performances brings different people from a multitude of backgrounds into the same room to celebrate the beauty of humanity.

To AAADT, dance is an art form that expresses equality. Every dancer is equal on the stage, all pushing for the beauty of their act as one, unified force. To Cal Performances, every member of the audience is equal in receiving such art, all participating in the collective experience of viewership. Their creative partnership creates programs of cultural ambassadorship for the Berkeley community and a space for diverse and innovative art, acting as a voice of change in the organizations’ shared field.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s residency is part of Cal Performances’ Berkeley RADICAL “Joining Generations” programming strand, which spotlights the work of four generations of African-American choreographers. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will perform from Tuesday, April 10 through Sunday, April 15 in Zellerbach Hall, featuring three separate programs with pieces by seven different choreographers, each exploring Black history and identity.

From choreographer Talley Beatty’s “Stack-Up”, an urban portrait of Los Angeles performed to a selection of contemporary music in Program A, to Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece “Revelations,” which appears in all three programs, Battle cultivated a selection of performances that showcase both the variety and unity of Black dance and music.

Program B includes Jawole Willa Zollar’s “Shelter,” an Ailey classic, performed for the first time with an all-female cast. Also featured is Battle’s own “Ella,” a physical interpretation of an Ella Fitzgerald scat, “Airmail Special.” The final program draws from vastly different musical influences. Spanish choreographer Ramirez Sansano’s “Victoria” is set to Michael Gordon’s “Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony,” while Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section” is set to a more modern score by David Byrne of Talking Heads.

Though the context of what it means to be Black in America has changed since Alvin Ailey created the company, Battle believes the mission of AAADT is the same — to encourage people to see race and celebrate it, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Since the beginning of their relationship, Cal Performances seeks to actively recognize and provide platforms for Black artists.

For the past 17 years, Cal Performances has hosted Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, a summer camp for students ages 11 to 14. The program was originally conceived by AAADT and is now run locally by Cal Performances, offering nearly 1,000 Bay Area children full scholarships to gain professional-level dance training and personal development skills. Embodying Ailey’s legacy and fostered by Cal Performances, the camp uses dance to help develop creative expression, critical thinking and self-esteem.

As part of their partnership’s 50th anniversary, the organizations planned extensive activities throughout this week as part of the dance company’s residency in Berkeley. On Thursday, April 12, there will be a public forum on the “Joining Generations” program with senior Ailey company members and Brandi Wilkins Catanese, an associate professor of the departments of theater, dance and performance studies and African American studies.

Company dancers will hold a series of dance workshops Friday, April 13 to teach some of the choreography from AAADT’s transformative, revolutionary dance “Revelations.” After these workshops, the dancers will also lead a flash mob on Lower Sproul Plaza entitled “Berkeley Dances ‘Revelations.’ ”

Throughout Berkeley’s history with divisive political movements and AAADT’s struggle to amplify the voices of the Black dance community, the partnership has created a space of inclusion and diversity that defies political borders. This space is where anyone and everyone can enter and experience the beauty and power of the human body. May this 50th anniversary of a revolutionary relationship mark a partnership that will continue for many years to come.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Revelations” will return to Zellerbach Hall for the 31st time. In fact, the exact number of times that “Revelations” has been performed on the Berkeley campus is unknown.

A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Alvin Ailey and Cal Performances co-host AileyCamp at Cal Performances. In fact, Cal Performances has hosted Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp independently.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that AAADT is bringing four generations of Black choreographers for Cal Performances’ “Joining Generations.” In fact, Alvin Ailey is one of the four choreographers Cal Performances is spotlighting for the program.