It was the first time for many Detroiters, and most of America: lithe young dancers performing modern moves with a difference. Their hips and shoulders had an attitude out of the deep South, the ghetto or a smoky late-night club, but definitely not a dance studio.
The year was 1968, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was making its first national tour, and halfway through Ailey's joyous, gospel-scored Revelations, in the section called "Sinner Man," three male dancers flew through the air in arcs, one after the other, as if on trapezes. The audience lost it, expressing pure pleasure and thrilled awe in an outpouring of claps and shouts. The company performed so well that March evening that some audience members (this critic included), traveled to see the same show presented later that week in Flint.
The Ailey company has had a strong presence here ever since, playing almost every year since the mid-'70s. Masazumi Chaya, who began dancing with Ailey back then and is now the associate artistic director, remembers performing here years ago.
Even though it's typical for companies to hold back some lead dancers in tour towns, he says, in Detroit, "We did almost the same programs that we did in New York. Everybody danced. Oh, my God, the audience was great, so many encores."
The company returns this week to perform works from the wider world of modern ballet, by choreographers Hans Van Manen and David Parson, as well as Ailey classics For 'Bird'With Love, Memoria, Hidden Rites, Night Creature and Cry, the last a memorable solo about black womanhood that turned dancer Judith Jamison (who took over as the artistic director in 1989) into an icon.
Ailey's vision was an amalgam of urban and rural culture presenting the black experience with cutting-edge modern dance choreography. As associate artistic director, Chaya continues with his tradition, re-creating dances from Ailey's repertory and restaging his works.
Dancers are easy learners, but, Chaya says, "I was there in that room, watching Ailey choreograph." Being there helps him now explain and express where the art comes from. He also studied Ailey and the other dancers offstage. "Mr. Ailey never treated me as a foreigner," says Japanese-born Chaya. "I wanted to soak up African-American culture. I was hungry to know things. Just being around the dancers was enough."
Even with a whole new generation, the company remains very much in Ailey's eclectic mold. A list of the musical scores alone from Bach to hip-hop, from spirituals to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett reflects the diversity of his vision. Expect to see the music come alive in angular movements, energetic leaps and down-home rhythmic jauntiness.
Of the 30 current dancers, Chaya says, "These guys and ladies, they love to share, they love to give, and they dance like there's no tomorrow."
As always, the program ends with Revelations, that piece from decades ago that made Detroiters leap from their seats. Go, Sinner Man.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is 7:30 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday, May 24-25; 8 p.m., Friday, May 26; 2 p.m. (family performance); and 8 p.m., Saturday, May 27; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, May 28, at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-237-SING.Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]