Dance Feature: Alvin Ailey and Boston’s Elma Lewis — Beautiful Beyond Resistance

Last week, the Celebrity Series of Boston gathered a distinguished multi-generational panel to consider both the legacy of Alvin Ailey and of Elma Lewis.

Revelations: The Legacies of Alvin Ailey and Boston’s Elma Lewis: A Symposium Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at John Hancock Hall, December 6, moderated by Callie Crossley. Taped for archival use by WGBH.

Photo: Robert Torres

l to r: Shaumba Dibinga, Sylvia Waters, and Barry Gaither at “Revelations: The Legacies of Alvin Ailey and Boston’s Elma Lewis.” Photo: Robert Torres.

By Debra Cash

Foundational institutions rarely start that way, and traditions only assume the gloss of familiar appreciation buffed by repetition. When Walter Pierce first booked Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre to Boston for a single performance in the winter of 1968, relationships between African-Americans and whites in Boston, as elsewhere in the nation, were raw. Fifty years after that first performance, they are raw in ways that are both similar and different. Today, it’s easy to check off the Ailey repertory as mainstream entertainment, but in 1968, it was anything but. In the company’s celebration of the African-American experience, its commitment to black dancer artists on the stage, in the musical choices that accompanied their performances, and its outreach to audiences of color that would not, ordinarily, have crossed the thresholds of certain venues, booking the company that danced “Revelations” was a radical act.

Last week, the Celebrity Series of Boston gathered a distinguished multi-generational panel to consider both the legacy of Alvin Ailey, whose eponymous company may be the most recognizable, non-ballet dance company on the planet, and of Elma Lewis, a name that has lost its luster, if not its centrality to the history of arts in our community. Lewis, explained her contemporary E. Barry Gaither, director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, taught that “cultural heritage is not a limitation, it is a platform.” Vision, she argued, “requires not looking at your feet…but at the infinity of what’s before you.”

By hosting the Revelations panel at John Hancock Hall, the Celebrity Series was tugging on nostalgic heartstrings: there was more than one person in this year’s audience who had attended that first Ailey performance on the John Hancock stage. Sylvia Waters, subbing on the panel at the last minute for director emerita Judith Jamison, had joined the Ailey company in 1969. She marveled at how small the stage felt compared to the places she would go on to dance during her years with the company, and then as director of Ailey II, and now as leader of the Ailey Legacy Residency program for college students.

Waters shared that the “Revelations” we have come to cherish was not the original version: the 1960 version was almost twice as long, and although the work was distilled to its indelible essence, Alvin hated leaving some of the traditional spirituals he had loved from his Texas childhood on the cutting room floor. Younger audiences thrill to the score even today: when music teacher Betty Hillmon took a group of African-American students from the 4th and 5th grade to see “Revelations,” one of them exclaimed “Miss Millmon, they were dancing to our song!”

“Revelations”‘ influence spans not only time and place but media. Boston choreographer Jean Appolon was on hand to describe how, as an impoverished six year old child in Port-au-Prince, he saw the Ailey company on television and, to the horror of his parents, declared that he wanted to dance with that company. By the time he was a young adult and had moved from Haiti to Cambridge with his mother and siblings, he had been accepted to train at the Ailey School (he seems to have avoided gloating). Ushering at City Center every night, he recognized traces of Haitian spirit possession in the spiritual glories of Ailey’s choreography. Similarly, Shaumba-Yandje Dibinga, the daughter of Congolese refugees who directs the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center with her sister Musau, can trace her dancing heritage to Elma Lewis in the pedagogy of Jackie Curry and Leslie Butler Barron. Dibinga reflected that during her training at the Ailey school she learned that “dance came from the people and should be given back to the people,” a challenge her school aims to honor.

Both Ailey and Lewis were institution builders, and if Lewis was never able to build a “black Lincoln Center” in Boston, her signature, multigenerational production of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” has lasted. This month, it celebrates its 47th season.

“Revelations,” for its part, will be marking its 50th year of Boston performances under Celebrity Series auspices this March. Gaither parses its 20th century lineage; this is an example of black cultural production that converted field songs to concert material with classically trained artists like Roland Hayes, and then enriched it via choreography that made it lyrical and “beautiful beyond resistance” to “render it to a world that cannot not respond.” To which one can only respond, Amen.

Debra Cash, Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance,, is a founding Senior Contributor to The Arts Fuse and a member of its Board of Directors. In 2017 she was honored as Champion of the Arts by OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center.

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