Alvin Ailey's "Revelations" is such an exultant ballet of spiritual triumph over adversity that the work has become virtually the signature piece of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since the ballet was created in 1960.
Audiences habitually go wild for the closing dance set to "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." So much so, that a literal repeat of this part has become mandatory. This encore has even been included in a 1986 videodisc recording of the work, which begins with remarks by Ailey.
In it, Ailey says that the ballet (among those to be danced by the company tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre) is "about black roots" and was inspired by his "blood memories" of the "blues, spirituals, gospel and ragtime" music in his native small-town community in Texas.
"I have very intense feelings about these things," he says. "My first ballets were based on these, and they are ballets that celebrate the black experience."
The title comes from the Bible and is a suite of spirituals in three large sections: "Pilgrim of Sorrow," "Take Me to the Water" and "Move, Members, Move."
The first section, Ailey says, is "based on songs of black people working to get out of the situation" of slavery and repression.
The second, which he calls a "very intense memory theatricalized" is based upon the baptismal ceremonies of his childhood church. The third is his recollection of "my uncles, family, (and) mother in these churches." Altogether, he says, it is "a very personal" ballet.
Ailey, born Jan. 5, 1931, in Rogers, Tex., 50 miles south of Waco, grew up in extreme poverty. His mother was 17 when he was born and earned her living picking cotton and doing laundry, after her husband abandoned her when Ailey was 6 months old.
Life improved, however, after she and her son moved in 1942 to Los Angeles, where she was able to find work in an aircraft factory.
It was in Los Angeles that Ailey began studying with modern dance pioneer Lester Horton. He joined Horton's company, the first racially integrated dance company in the country, when he was 18 and took it over after Horton's death in 1953.
Seeking to broaden his experience, however, he decided to go to New York a year later for further study and began a notable career on Broadway. But in 1958, he decided to form his own company.
"I felt the need for a modern dance repertory company," he says in the video.
His dream, he says, was to create a "big national modern dance company" with works by all the major modern dance choreographers, not just his own choreographies. But logistical problems prevented that, and he had to settle for creating what is probably the most popular dance company in the world.
Although he retired from dancing--some would say prematurely--in 1965, he continued to choreograph almost until his death of a blood disorder in December, 1989, drawing upon classical ballet, jazz dance, Afro-Caribbean dance and the modern-dance idioms of Horton and Martha Graham, among others.
Judith Jamison, one of his greatest dancers, who had been with the company from 1965 to 1980, took it over at the end of 1989.
"I always wanted a popular company," Ailey says in the 1986 video. "I don't believe in the elitist philosophy that dance . . . is beyond (the people). The dance in particular is for the people."
What: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
When: Thursday, April 25, at 8 p.m.
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.
Whereabouts: On the UC Irvine campus, on Campus Road near University Drive, across from the Marketplace mall.
Where to call: (714) 856-5000.