One of the clearest influences of the spirituals has been seen in American modern dance. As early as 1927, the American choreographer and dancer Helen Tamiris created “Negro Spirituals,” part of her ongoing commitment to creating dances reflecting progressive social change, drawing on indigenous sources. Tamiris’ use of Negro Spirituals paved the way for the inclusion of spirituals in the works of many prominent choreographers, including Katherine Dunham, Talley Beatty and Pearl Primus12. The best known of these works is Revelations13, by the late African American choreographer Alvin Ailey .
Created in 1960 out of the reservoir of his experience as a Black man growing up in the intense racism of Texas and the deep South, Revelations also pre-figured the great social upheaval of the U.S. Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960’s. The piece begins with movement choreographed around the powerful spiritual “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” and goes uphill from there, punctuated throughout by the symbolic renderings of “Wade in the Water” and several other spirituals. Revelations has held audiences spellbound for decades, drawing them into the sounds and the symbolic physicality of the spirituals, and communicating to people worldwide the universal messages of freedom and human dignity contained in the melodies and lyrics of the spirituals it employs. Revelations remains the most requested piece in the repertoire of the American Dance Theater, currently directed by Ailey’s protégé Judith Jamison.
Another prominent dance ensemble that has featured a major work choreographed around musical themes from Negro Spirituals is the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, based in Denver, Colorado. Just as Revelations was for Alvin Ailey, Cleo Parker Robinson’s Spiritual Suite has been a signature piece for her group, since 1974. More recently, the Sandra Organ Dance Company, founded in Houston, Texas in 1998, introduced Prelude to the Spirit, a five-part piece that uses the noted soprano Barbara Hendrick's singing of Negro spirituals and George Gershwin's Preludes.
The New York-based Avodah Dance Ensemble is a modern dance company rooted in the Jewish tradition and committed to work that advances principles of social justice, multicultural and interfaith collaboration, and forgiveness. In 1989, Avodah Founding Director JoAnne Tucker, along with guest collaborator Louis Johnson, created "Let My People Go," a retelling of the Exodus story from both a Jewish and an African-American point of view. Avodah has incorporated into its repertoire Helen Tamiris’ classic “Negro Spirituals.”
The mission of the dance company began focused on the Jewish community and then in ’87 it began to take a new dimension when, as I will periodically do, I’ll sometimes make the rounds of my board members. Avodah’s an official 501C3 since 1974, non-profit corporation. I will go around and ask them what do you think I should focus on next? And it happened to be at the time where Jesse Jackson had said some things that had gotten the Jewish community a little bit in arms. They were not comfortable. And one of my board members, Rabbi Charles Croloff said to me, “JoAnne, why don’t you do something to heal bad energy between the Black and Jewish community because dance is a natural at which you could explore things.” And I thought that was a great idea but I didn’t know what to do. And I tucked it away. It took about six months until I figured out what to do. And one of the first things I decided is I needed a collaborator. I needed a collaborator from the African American community who also felt this was a worthwhile process. And so I went to a friend of mine at Henry Street Settlement House. Henry Street had produced Avodah in 1979, when we were still in Tallahassee, but there was a period when we were coming up to New York occasionally and I had a New York company and a Tallahassee company, before we totally relocated. And so we had performed at Henry Street and I knew the director of dance at Henry Street was Louis Johnson. And Louis is a prominent African American choreographer who has done things like the movie the Wiz, Pearlie on Broadway. He also was one of the first people to be a dancer on Broadway as a member of the chorus in a non-ethnic role, just simply a member in Damn Yankees. So I asked to be introduced to him and we had our first lunch; it was very nice.
We agreed we would want to work together, but again we didn’t know what we wanted to do. And then a few months went by and a friend of mine happened to make the comment to me that in the Passover Seder they read James Weldon Johnson’s poem Let My People Go as part of their Seder. So I called Louis up and we had lunch again and I said, “Louis, do you know the poem?” And he says, “Of course, very well.” I said this might be a natural place to play. And he thought it was great. And we’re talking and then all of a sudden Louis got this incredible twinkle in his eye and I said, “What are you thinking, Louis?” And he said, “I can hear the Negro spiritual Let My People Go, Go Down, Moses being sung at the same time as a Hebrew text is chanted.”
Alvin Ailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.
Jennifer Dunning, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.A recorded performance of Revelations is available in both DVD and videocassette formats:
Videocassette: An Evening with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater