Arts and Entertainment

Revelations: A Celebrated Masterpiece of Modern American Dance

With “Revelations,” Ailey elevates the purpose of contemporary dance.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Stacey Chen

Alvin Ailey’s Revelations is a deeply moving and distinct experience. The theater is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with dance connoisseurs and novices alike. While the dancers have beautifully precise technique, the storytelling, diversity, atmosphere, and music of Revelations are what set it apart and ignite the human spirit.

Alvin Ailey was an American dancer, choreographer, and activist who is known for blending elements of modern dance, ballet, jazz, theater, and other styles into his work. Born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas, Ailey was subjected to racism and forced to work cotton fields with his mother to make ends meet. Ailey sought refuge from his grueling life in his local Baptist church, which inspired his love for music, theater, and dance—elements he would later incorporate into his performances as a choreographer. In March of 1958, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He felt it was important to create a dance company where black dancers could avoid deeply-rooted discrimination within the entertainment industry and feature African-Americans’ stories, a revolutionary idea for the medium in the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Revelations is Ailey’s most acclaimed choreography and the signature performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The history told in Revelations is timely and timeless all the same. The dance performance is broken into three major sections: “Pilgrims of Sorrow,” depicting the sufferings of slavery, “Take Me to the Water,” representing a baptism, and “Move, Members, Move,” evoking a church pew under the sweltering Texas sun. Each act has an entirely different tone. “Pilgrims of Sorrow,” the opening act of the performance, has an earthy ambiance. The dancers, wrapped in brown and beige cloth on a dimly lit stage, move slowly and seem to emerge from the ground and reach for the heavens. This act is a depiction of the suffering endured by enslaved people. In the opening song “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” a folk hymn associated with the Civil Rights Movement, the dancers move as one despairing mass as they descend together and extend their arms to form a protective human arch. Their movements are full of pain and sorrow, yet they are ultimately triumphant in their unity.

The second act of Revelations begins with “Take Me to the Water.” The stage is covered in a deep blue, and the dancers wear white and pale-blue outfits to represent the sacrament of Baptism. The lead dancer, representing a priestess, rhythmically sways with a flowing white parasol, and leads a congregation of dancers to witness and celebrate the baptisms of a young man and woman. In the song “Wade in the Water,” long, smooth bands of silk in teal blue and turquoise mimic the movements of rippling water across the stage as the dancers step to and fro jubilantly, as if cleansed from their sins.

In contrast, the next scene, “I Wanna Be Ready,” features a sinner who doesn’t feel worthy of receiving forgiveness from God and wants to live a pure life as told through the lyrics: “I would not be a gambler, I’ll tell you the reason why / Because if my Lord were to call on me, Lord, I wouldn’t be ready to die.” This piece is a physically challenging solo performance, requiring a strong core and precise, intentional, reaching movements to demonstrate the struggle one would face in leading an honorable life.

The stage scene for the final act, “Move, Members, Move,” mimics a hot summer day with a large sun at the center of the backdrop. A dozen dancers fill the stage carrying wooden stools and wearing bright yellow dresses, adorned with large brimmed hats and handheld fans to represent church service. They greet each other through their body language and use their fans to talk and gossip amongst each other. An additional dozen dancers join the scene to form a congregation. This act is the most uplifting of the three, as it celebrates the environment of the church and its community.

Music is one of the core aspects of Revelations. Throughout the full 36-minute performance, gospel, blues, and soul music fill the air and propel the dancers. At times, the songs are mournful through interwoven acapella arrangements; at others, they are very uplifting and energetic with an assortment of percussion instruments accompanying the vibrant choir.

Traditionally, ballet dancers are pale, thin, and demure. However, Ailey’s dancers are predominantly black, muscular, and range in height and age. Lead positions in the company are held by both male and female dancers. Each dancer is seen as an individual, rather than the standard mold of a prima ballerina. The dancers express themselves fully with each movement, and that’s what makes every Ailey performance so unique. Revelations’s attentive care to its dancers foments strong connections with audience members, too. With each exhalation and the sweeping of their feet on the floor as they move, each dancer shows their emotions on their face, rejecting typical stoicism. Ultimately, Revelations is about hope, unity, and connecting with one another on a human level.

Tragically, on December 1, 1989, Alvin Ailey died from AIDS at the age of 58. Today, Ailey’s work is considered a vital artistic representation of American culture and has been performed at the White House multiple times, as well as at the 1968 Olympics. Revelations is hosted as a feature performance every year at The New York City Center from November 30 through December 24, allowing New Yorkers to witness Ailey’s masterpiece live and soak in the array of human emotion from a unique lens.