With theaters closed, dance companies have had to find ways to adapt if they wish to continue creating in this strange time. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is celebrating their fiftieth anniversary of Revelations with a virtual season. Ailey was an African-American director and choreographer who founded the AAADT in 1958 as a place for Black dancers to create. His Revelations premiered in 1960 and uses a blend of African American spirituals, gospel hymns, and blues songs to tell a story of the African American experience. Considered one of the most popular ballets of all time, Revelations is also the inspiration for a new piece as part of the AAADT’s new season.
This marks the world premiere of Testament, an original piece by Associate Artistic Director Matthew Rushing, company member and assistant to the Rehearsal Director Clifton Brown, and former company member Yusha-Marie Sorzano. Sorzano, originally from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, is now a choreographer and dance educator. While with the AAADT, she performed many principal roles.
Testament tells a story about a community overcoming pain and oppression and finding joy and light. It has an original score by Damien Sneed and blends several types of music together. The lyrics of the music ask questions like “Why am I here? What did I do to get here?” before later resolving, “I am here, I am worthy.”
The dance, which can be broken into chapters, is a mix of fear and questioning with determination and joy. There are group parts, a duet with two male dancers, and a solo with a female dancer. The dance also goes between being inside on a stage to outside amongst greenery. The physicality of the dance is impressive, being both controlled and fluid, and all of the performers are very emotive.
The dance itself is about twenty minutes long, but is followed up by a half hour long conversation with the three choreographers in which they discuss their creative process and their inspirations. Sorzano discusses how they wanted to “honor the spirit of Revelations” and “keep the conversation going.” They talk about Temptations being “tangible proof” of Ailey’s legacy and Brown notes that it shows “the journey from lament to hope.” The three walk through every section of the dance, explaining how it represents Exodus, Slavery and Antebellum, the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, and finally Afro-Futurism.
Throughout this, they also show clips from rehearsals in which dancers are notably wearing masks. Sorzano was able to work on the project without being on the East Coast in person, another sign of the time in which this was made.
What’s most remarkable about Testament, perhaps, is how exquisitely well filmed and edited it is. Rushing explains that they wanted “not a ballet that will be filmed, we wanted to create a dance film.” They brought in filmmaker Preston Miller to help translate the dance to the screen. The cinematography is beautiful, mixing close-up shots of the dancers with more wide shots where you can see the full company.
Even more remarkably, footage of the dancers is blended with historic images of African Americans. We see famous Black American ranging from Rosa Parks to Barack Obama and these images help demonstrate the themes of the dance.
Testament is a perfect example of how a dance company can take advantage of the medium of film to create a unique experience for streaming online. The choreographers say that they look forward to a return to live performance, but want to find the best ways to share their art until then. This is a fantastic example of filmed dance that should stand as an example to other companies. It will be available to stream until December 24, which will allow it to reach more audiences than it might otherwise have. Testament is a beautiful celebration of shared African American experience, the work of Alvin Ailey, and the spirit of making the best of a bad situation.
© Nicole Ackman (12/18/20) FF2 Media
Top Photo: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Testament
Middle Photo: The filming of Testament
Bottom Photo: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Testament
Photo Credits: Top and Middle by Travis Magee; Bottom by Nicole Tintle