Revelations (Alvin Ailey)

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Revelations performed by Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 2011


Born in 1931 in Rogers, Texas, Alvin Ailey was raised by a young, single mother named Lula Elizabeth.  Due to the Great Depression and racial segregation, there was a large struggle for finding work and the two of them were forced to move often.  As a result, Ailey spent the first twelve years of his life in various Texas small towns with only his mother to provide for the family.  Ailey grew up in the stereotypical black, impoverished South, constantly surrounded by religion. To describe his childhood, Ailey said, "I was miserable then and felt very alone"[1].  When Ailey was 11 years old, his mother chose to vacate to Los Angeles, California, with the intention of becoming employed[2].  Alvin followed shortly after, for he stayed in Texas for a brief time to finish the schoolyear.  Once finding his place in California at the Thomas Jefferson High School, Ailey became involved with glee club, poetry, and language, and at 18 years old, he was introduced to dance. His good friend Carmen De Lavallade introduced him to dancer Lester Horton, who later became Ailey’s dance mentor.  When Ailey joined Horton’s dance school at the age of 22, he was introduced to a wide range of dance styles. Ailey progressed greatly while studying at the school, and when Horton passed away, Ailey became the new artistic director of his company.

Revelations is the signature choreographic work of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was first produced by Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City, New York on January 31, 1960, when Ailey was only 29 years old.  Revelations illustrates the history, traditions, faith, and beliefs of the African American culture while telling the story of African-American faith and tenacity from slavery to freedom through a suite of dances set to spirituals, gospels, and blues music.  Being raised by an extremely Christian mother, this piece was inspired by his days spent celebrating Christianity at Mount Olive Baptist Church, along with the works of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, two African American authors and social activists.

Ailey intended for the dance to be the second part of his larger, evening-length survey of African-American music which had been begun in 1958 with his work Blues Suite though this was never fully realized. At its premiere, the piece initially had 10 sections, a live vocal chorus, and was an over an hour in duration, and included 2 soloists. Sections were removed as the work evolved, and an extensive tour sponsored by the U.S. Department in 1962 forced Ailey to commit the music for Revelations to recording. The dance then solidified into the three-part format seen today with a duration of 36 minutes. The original score included parts for guitar, percussion and violin and voice. The piece was expanded to include parts for keyboards, drums and electric bass.

Ailey did not dance in the world premiere, but as early company personnel shifted, he performed some of its group sections as solos[3].

Revelations is divided into three sections "Pilgrim of Sorrow", "Take Me to the Water" and "Move, Members, Move"

Pilgrim of Sorrow[edit]

The first section, “Pilgrim of Sorrow” begins in total stillness.  As the stage lights up, the earthy colors of the costumes and backdrop become apparent.  These drab colors symbolize the earth, as Ailey’s intentions were to portray people attempting to rise up from the ground.  The motions of these dancers also add to the portrayal of rising. The choreography contains a lot of arms reaching, as people reach upward to rise.  The contractions choreographed in the piece portray the strength that these people must exert to try to be free, however they are unable to reach that freedom, shown by the dancers falling to their knees.  Aside from falling to the knees, this section of dance has the most floorwork and grounded movement, symbolizing the low state of mind that the characters have[3]. During the duet part of this section, the lyrics “fix me Jesus” are repeatedly sung, showing that these dancers are asking for help.

Take Me to the Water[edit]

“Take Me to the Water” is the next section of the dance.  It conveys a ceremonial baptism, focusing on purity. A large group of dancers clad in white sweep onto the stage as baptismal agents—a tree branch to sweep the earth and a white cloth to cleanse the sky—lead a processional to the stream of purification. This can be seen with the white and pale blue costumes, ribbons on stage, and backdrops, as the color white symbolizes purity, heaven, and illumination[3].  To the strains of "Wade in the Water" a devotional leader bearing a large umbrella baptizes a young couple at a river, represented by yards of billowing blue silk stretched across the stage. The lyrics, along with the rolling movements of the arms and silk add to the importance of water in this dance. The white umbrella is symbolic of water and being baptized as well.  This movement is grounded but not floorwork, exemplifying the middle stage between grief and joy. There is much reaching in this portion of the piece as well, showing how these dancers still yearn and fight to achieve joy.A raucous ceremony is followed by the meditative solo "I Wanna Be Ready" which communicates a devout man's preparations for death. Created by Ailey in collaborations with its original dancer James Trite, the solo builds on exercises derived from the Horton modern dance technique.

Move Members, Move[edit]

The final section, entitled “Move, Members, Move” celebrates the liberating power of 20th-century gospel music This is the most positive and uplifting section, as it celebrates the church and its people.  As stated by Moore and DeFranz, “he men rise form their chairs join in the dancing, skipping transitional states of everyday gesture to launch into a flowing, tightly syncopated phrase of bounding jazz dance”[3]. This section includes the propulsive men's trio "Sinner Man" and the "Yellow" section, set in a southern Baptist rural church. Eighteen dancers in yellow costumes enact a church service with fans and stools. Earthy but bright tones in the costumes, such as yellow and white, symbolize the joyous nature of the piece.  The hats and fans are used to enact church service, and the fast and upbeat music adds to the positivity. The movements in this section are mainly upright, and this part consists of more jumps than the other sections. Stretched across the stage with torsos proudly lifted, the dancers embody the joy of faith contained by complex stepping patterns performed in unison.   It can easily be identified as the most active part, as the dancers finally reach a state of happiness. This section also has the most dancers, conveying a large celebration.

Performance Details[edit]

RUN TIME: 36 Minutes

PREMIERE: Company: New York, Kaufman Concert Hall, 92nd Street YM-YWHM, 1960

World: New York, Kaufman Concert Hall, 92nd Street YM-YWHM, 1960

COSTUMES: Costumes for Rocka My Soul section redesigned by Barbara Forbes

DÉCOR & COSTUMES: Original décor and costumes by Lawrence Maldonado; Revival décor and costumes by Ves Harper

LIGHTING: Nicola Cernovitch

MUSIC: Various Artists

MUSICAL STYLE: Traditional Spirituals



I Been 'Buked - Music arranged by Hall Johnson*

Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel - Music arranged by James Miller+   

Fix Me, Jesus - Music arranged by Hall Johnson*


Processional/Honor, Honor - Music adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts

Wade in the Water - Music adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts    

"Wade in the Water" sequence by Ella Jenkins  / "A Man Went Down to the River" is an original composition by Ella Jenkins

I Wanna Be Ready - Music arranged by James Miller+


Sinner Man - Music adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts    

The Day is Past and Gone - Music arranged by Howard A. Roberts and Brother John Sellers

You May Run On - Music arranged by Howard A. Roberts and Brother John Sellers

Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham - Music adapted and arranged by Howard A. Roberts[4].

Original dancers[edit]

Loretta Abbott, Merle Derby, Joan Dirty, Jay Fletcher, Thelma Hill, Gene Hobgood, Natheniel Horne, Herman Howell, Minnie Marsall, Don Martin, Nancy Redi, Corene Richardson, Juliet "Geri" Seignious, Ella Thompson, James Truitte and Myrna White.


  1. ^ Obalil '95, Deborah (1995-05-01). "Dancin' to Freedom: A Historical Analysis of the Rise of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater". Honors Projects.
  2. ^ Hatfield, Joe Edward (9 March 2017). "Dancing Southern Diaspora,: Alvin Ailey's Blood and the Backwardness of Quare Disidentification".
  3. ^ a b c d DeFranz, Thomas (15 January 2004). "Dancing Revelations : Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture".
  4. ^ "Revelations". Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 2010-03-15. Retrieved 2019-02-28.

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