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November 30 2019
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Alvin Ailey, photographed by Burt Glinn in 1972. On December 10, New York’s City Center hosts the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s premiere of Ode.

As American an art form as the blues, modern dance was once also a protest art surreptitiously and pleasurably swathed in sensuality. For nascent feminism, there was Isadora Duncan flouncing about in Grecian drapery, and for anti-war sentiment Martha Graham offered an Amazon “specter” who gathered and dispensed trouble in the volumes of her skirt. In the early heat of the civil-rights movement, Alvin Ailey took up the political mantle simply by putting black experience onstage, replacing the prevailing cartoonish stereotypes with dances of unpronounced dignity, hard-won optimism, and pantherine power.

Sixty years on, the gentle, looming dancer-choreographer Jamar Roberts invokes Ailey’s marriage of hope and circumstance in his debut as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s first resident choreographer (after the founder, who didn’t need the title). For his new piece, Ode—which premieres on December 10 during the company’s month at the City Center, and which should prove a season highlight—Roberts “wanted to … address a very hard issue … with as much love as I possibly could.” The issue is gun violence. The love is for its victims: the choreographer cites Trayvon Martin, while the music, a jazz suite by Don Pullen, takes its name from Malcolm X. And there is also Roberts’s love for steps: how much they might contain.

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