When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s new season kicks off at New York City Center on Wednesday, its dancers will debut new pieces and revisit old classics too.
Some of the new offerings include the world premiere of “Are You in Your Feelings?” by Kyle Abraham and the company premiere of Twyla Tharp’s “Roy’s Joy’s.” The season will also feature nine works from founder Alvin Ailey, including the classic “Revelations” and “Survivors.”
“Survivors” originally debuted in 1986 and was last seen in 1988. The piece, which artistic director Robert Battle described as “raw” and “primal,” tells the story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Their courage through oppression, Battle said, rings especially true today in the aftermath of 2020 and the global social justice reckoning that followed George Floyd’s violent death at the hands of police.
“To me, it kind of speaks to where we are today and in a way that we need to have a voice, we need to speak out, cry for justice,” he said. “So it kind of dovetails brilliantly with where we are as a nation and as a world.”
Senior member Vernard Gilmore will dance the lead role as Nelson Mandela, a role he said is very physically “demanding.”
“Mr. Mandela was a man who was fighting for the oppressed to better his people,” Gilmore said. “That's the same fight that we have here in America that is continually happening all over the world. That's what I mean by the story being so transcendent.”
Gilmore has performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 25 years -- a heroic tenure for any athlete. In that time, he has danced on stages abroad.
“You go around the world, and a lot of people haven't seen dancers like us. And so the more exposure we get, the more people see it, and want to see it and want to be a part of it,” he said.
“Survivors” may not be one of Ailey’s best known works, but its themes echo those found in much of his choreography. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in the midst of the civil rights movement, and used dance as a tool to fight for equal rights and to preserve and celebrate the Black experience and culture.
“Our works are not only about entertaining, but they also delve into the realm of social justice,” Battle said.
It’s clear that pioneers like Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell have had an impact. In recent years, even historically less diverse forms of dance like ballet, have become more inclusive.
American Ballet Theatre launched Project Plie in 2013 to promote diversity in ballet and promoted Misty Copeland to principal dancer in 2015. When Calvin Royal III was promoted to that rank in 2021, he became just the third black dancer in history to achieve that distinction. New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet has also pushed to increase enrollment of diverse students with free programming in city neighborhoods.
“It's wonderful to see that people are catching up, but Mr. Ailey was a trailblazer. And he always understood that inclusivity is a superpower of ours,” Battle said.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s season kicks off Nov. 30 in New York City for a holiday engagement through Dec. 24. Then, the company will take off on a North American tour in 2023.