Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Debuts 'Lazarus' To Celebrate 60th Anniversary

Feb 17, 2019
Originally published on February 18, 2019 2:16 pm

After dance pioneer Alvin Ailey died in 1989, the future of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was uncertain. It's difficult to keep a dance company profitable after its founder is long gone – many have tried and failed. But 30 years later, the group is thriving, and decided to celebrate its 60th anniversary and founder by commissioning a new work titled Lazarus.

The company chose choreographer Rennie Harris, who formed the first and longest running hip-hop dance touring company, to create the hour-long piece. Harris is the first artist-in-residence for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and was tasked with creating the first two-act work the company has ever had. His previous contributions to the contemporary dance company include Love Stories and Home.

Harris' first company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, has traveled the world and was chosen to serve as citizen-diplomats for the U.S. Department of State's DanceMotion USA in 2012. The Philadelphia native has also received various awards, including the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, and was voted one of the most influential people over the past 100 years of Philadelphia history.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Lazarus premiered in late 2018 at the New York City Center. The company is currently traveling across the United States to perform this anniversary piece until its last regional stop in Newark, N.J., on May 12. Lazarus is inspired by Ailey's experiences growing up in Texas in the Jim Crow era and features a 15-person cast that takes audiences through the racial inequalities that Ailey had to face in his lifetime, some of which hold true today.

"The focus was to figure out how to give the people the sense of slavery ... I wanted like the whole stage to be bodies, you know," Harris told NPR's Michel Martin in an interview for All Things Considered. "I couldn't get that look, so we kind of like did it slowly ... And then the migration with them on their knees moving like cattle through space like again [was] this poignant moment."


Interview Highlights

On how he got his start professionally

Like most African-Americans, we started at home with the family, you know. So I couldn't really say when it was, because I just know that I actually did it. And I did it throughout my childhood. I mean, I kind of flipped straight to professional from when I turned 14/15 years old. And I started to meet people who asked me to perform the, what's it called, the fish fry, the church bazaar event, the talent show, open up for the talent show at the church and I'd get paid. And so I would get a couple of guys and ... we would dance, well, you know, get $50 and we split $50. It was like $10 each and like we thought we came up. We thought we got over, because you know, had they asked us just to do it, we would have did it for free.

On the cultural and political nature of his work

Movement is the last manifestation of our reality right? Our action defines who we are. A lot of times we like to think that our words are, you know, oh, 'I'm this kind of person.' That kind of thing. And really it's an action. We know a person loves us because of the action that they take to show us, right? And so, the same thing when it comes to dance as an action right? So would dance if you really want to know what's, why this particular movement, or style, or movement as a whole, cultural movement is important or relative. Then you want to study what was going on politically, economically, and socially in that particular era. And so whatever that was, the expression, the physical expression, is embodied – and that's the last manifestation of how a person may feel.

On creating Lazarus

So after I stopped freaking out about it, it's OK, then I'm really focused. You know, let me figure out this thing, there's three parts: 20 minute, 20 minute, 20 minute, just think that way. Get through the first 20 minutes, we good. Then I could figure out the other 40. So that was the first goal and I thought in the same way I wanted to address slavery. Slavery, post slavery, and civil rights. And because I found it interesting, you know everyone talked about Mr. Ailey, you know, although the works I've seen on him they talked about him the man and I wanted to say showcase what was happening around him and how he forged this vision through all of that.

On creating this piece while there are racist and anti-Semitic groups publicly marching in the streets

Well, I think you know, I've jumped on the platform. You know, Alvin Ailey is coming soon, that automatically brings people in and they're not expecting that sort of thing that's going to make it relative for today. Like when you see it in my opinion you have to think about what's going on today, you can't ignore it. And then when you witness it you're now responsible. You now have a responsibility. I tell my students this all the time like you know 'after this class, after this course, you will be responsible.'

On why he thinks Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater survived for so long

People want change and I think sometimes they need a little pick-me-up or a little pushing and a reminder. And I think you know, because it's not just the American story, it's a global story. I mean, we're talking about spirit and journey and that represents a global story to me. But I think you know people when they ask for that American story that's really what they want and this is that inspiration that they need for themselves. And you see it around the world. People are doing it. However, it's not enough of us, you know, there are a lot of us who have great intention and we want to but we are so afraid of loss of losing that we are stuck and once we lose the idea of fear and lose that feeling, that butterfly feeling that's physically in your body when you become afraid, when you lose that then I think we'll be more progressive as a planet but we're afraid of losing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ask anybody who's tried - It's hard to keep even a well-known arts institution going. To keep it going after its founder and namesake has died is even more impressive. But, to do that for some six decades, some might call that miraculous. So, at that standard, you can understand why the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater decided to celebrate its 60th anniversary this year by commissioning a new powerful work titled "Lazarus."

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) War is risen.

MARTIN: It's a celebration of the life and legacy of dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, who was born in rural Texas in the 1930s, went on to found an American dance institution, which continues to thrive even after his death 30 years ago. "Lazarus" was created by the Philadelphia-based hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, considered a pioneer in his own right. And he's with us now from our studios in Washington, D.C. Rennie Harris, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

RENNIE HARRIS: Of course. Thank you.

MARTIN: So when you got the call that you were chosen to commission this piece, you know, I just have to ask. I know you have a body of work of your own. But...

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: ...Was there something a little intimidating about it?

HARRIS: Yeah. What was intimidating is that they wanted me to make it around Mr. Ailey's life. So that was a little bit - that was - no, it was a lot scary.

MARTIN: (Laughter) A lot scary.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: A lot of your work - your recent work, I would say, is political. And, by that, I mean you have ideas that you want to express. And I was going to ask how you get ideas into dance. But I heard you talking about your work. And you said it's actually the other way. If I can paraphrase what you said and you can tell me what you mean, you said that if I know what you've been through, I know how you will move.

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I think that movement is the last manifestation of our reality, right? Our action defines who we are. A lot of times we like to think that our words are, you know. Oh, I'm this kind of person, that kind of thing. And really, it's an action, right? We know a person loves us because of the action that they take to show us. And so the same thing when it comes to dance. If you really want to know why this particular movement or style or cultural movement is important or relative, then you want to study what was going on politically, economically and socially in that particular era. Whatever that was, the physical expression is embodied. And that's the last manifestation of how a person may feel.

MARTIN: Your work is so connected to who you are, where you come from. And I'm wondering about the experience of then trying to translate that into something that you're going to release to whoever outside of its own context.

HARRIS: I think if I thought of it that way, it would freak me out. I know what I'm creating is coming from me and my experience growing up. And in the very beginning of the company, you know, the first three or four rows would just get up and be out because my work dealt with molestation, rape, racism. But I was just using street dance and hip-hop vocabulary to tell these stories. And so often when you hear, oh, the hip-hop company's coming, it's like the circus is coming to town. And they didn't realize I'm addressing stuff.

MARTIN: And to that end, "Lazarus" is a very challenging work in the sense that there are very strong themes that you have to take in. It's hard to describe it because it's a visual experience. But tell me, if you can, if you wouldn't mind, what you're going for. How would you describe it?

HARRIS: I thought I wanted to address slavery, post-slavery and civil rights because I found it interesting, you know? Everyone talked about Mr. Ailey - all of the works I've seen on him, they talked about him, the man. And I wanted to showcase what was happening around him and how he forged this vision through all of that.

MARTIN: It is a really remarkable story if you think about it. I mean, here's a person who's born in the '30s in rural Texas. It was not the most hospitable environment for an artistically...

HARRIS: Right, exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Minded young black man. And then, he goes on and creates a dance company - modern dance company, and it thrives to this day.

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: It is a really remarkable story, right?

HARRIS: Yeah. It's amazing. And I think the focus was to figure out how to give the people the sense of slavery. And so - and the way that I did that I felt like was, one, the music, what we call blues road (ph) you hear. It's like (vocalizing), like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

HARRIS: Ominous kind of thing and a dragging of bodies, you know? That sort of represents the migration here in the States. It represents slavery, families lost, ideas set into people's heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

HARRIS: So the dragging of bodies, I think I had - I was going to say I dreamt it, I only like daydreamed. I was like, oh, snap. I wanted, like, the whole stage to be bodies, you know? I couldn't get that look, so we kind of, like, did it, slowly. So that was poignant.

MARTIN: And there's even - forgive me for - I don't want to give it all away. There's a moment where the dancers are swaying...

HARRIS: "Strange Fruit."

MARTIN: ...In this very nuanced way. And, all of a sudden, you realize that it's depicting not just one lynching but the lynching of many. And it's sort of shocking.

HARRIS: Yeah. That section I call Strange Fruit, right? So I was like, oh, I wonder if they get up and relevate (ph), if they could hang - it look like they're hanging or whatever, you know? It gives me chills every time I see it. And once I have those three sort of symbolic movements, I knew that I've already represented this transition from slavery post and into civil rights.

MARTIN: The piece is getting rave reviews - right? - rave reviews. What do you make of the fact that people were sitting through this piece, it's getting wild acclaim from the audience and yet we're in a moment where people are having marches and yelling, you know, racist things and anti-Semitic things in the streets? I mean, what do you make of that?

HARRIS: Well, I think, you know, I've jumped on the platform Ailey that automatically brings people in, expecting that sort of - that thing is going to make it relative for today. When you see it, in my opinion, you have to think about what's going on today. You can't ignore it. And then, when you witness it, you're now responsible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

MARTIN: That was Rennie Harris, the choreographer of "Lazarus." It's a new two-act piece commissioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in commemoration of its 60th anniversary. The company's currently on a 21-city North American tour and will be performing "Lazarus" throughout the U.S. until May 12. And, Rennie Harris, who's obviously fighting a cold, thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.