MLK’s WORDS AND A VISIT TO THE CENTER FOR CIVIL AND HUMAN RIGHTS INSPIRED ALVIN AILEY POWERHOUSE HOPE BOYKIN’S LATEST PIECE OF CHOREOGRAPHY
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Feb. 15-18 at the Fox Theatre. Details, tickets HERE.
IF YOU’VE VISITED the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, you likely know the room that shows footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. King’s recorded voice fills the small, dark space in a way that moves some visitors to clutch at their hearts.
Choreographer Hope Boykin, who’s been part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 17 years, found herself in that room when in town two years ago. One recording there comes from “The Drum Major Instinct,” the sermon King delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in February 1968. His last sermon there. Two months later, to the day, he was dead.
“Drum Major Instinct” talks about the dangers of living beyond your means and thinking yourself superior to others. A segment at the end says this: If I can help somebody as I pass along / If I can cheer somebody with a word or song / If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong / Then my living will not be in vain.
King’s words and cadence got beneath Boykin’s skin and sank in deep. She immersed herself in his writings. The resulting piece, titled r-Evolution, Dream, is featured in the repertoire that Ailey brings to Atlanta, the third stop in its 18-city North American tour.
“If he were alive today, he could be saying some of the same things,” Boykin says of King, “because everything he said was so relevant and remains relevant.”
She found herself creating moves well before she knew what the music might be. A specific rhythm step became prevalent while she conceptualized the abstract ballet. She’d walk down the street, sing the rhythm in her head, go over the steps whenever possible, “even if I just had five minutes in the dressing room.”
“That rhythm was sitting in my spirit. The step found its own rhythm, and that rhythm told the story.”
Whether it’s joy or sorrow, anger or frustration, “I articulate best through movement,” says Boykin, who’s from Durham, N.C. “People who meet me cannot know me unless they have seen me onstage. That’s how you get insight to my approach to life.” Often called a powerhouse dancer, Boykin has created two previous works for the Ailey company.
She kept moving until she was ready to tell artistic director Robert Battle that she wanted to choreograph a substantial new work for the nation’s pre-eminent African-American dance company.
With Battle’s OK, Boykin created r-Evolution, Dream for 15 dancers. The 33-minute piece got a standing ovation when it premiered in December in New York.
The New York Times said the piece “summons the ’60s with swinging elegance in various meters and moods” and described Boykin’s choreography as “closely attuned to the rhythms of both the music and the speeches.”
Boykin enlisted two top talents, and friends, for the piece. Ali Jackson, the principal drummer with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, created the score. Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton), recorded Boykin’s original text and historical text (from Shakespeare to MLK).
She wanted uniform designs for costumes but specifed bright colors — to segregate the dancers and symbolize the group or “class of people” they represent.
She calls r-Evolution, Dream “my opportunity to share my truth: that we are all built the same, we have two legs, two arms, two eyes to see. What separates us is only the tones of our skins. But we are all the same; we are all the same.”
Last year’s Atlanta program spotlighted new works by Battle. This time, Atlanta audiences get 11 pieces, with three or four slotted into each of the six Fox Theatre performances. To see them all, you’d need to attend four performances.
Three of the six include r-Evolution, Dream. The Atlanta engagement features two other world premieres: Untitled America by Kyle Abraham, about the impact of the prison system on African-American families, and Deep by Mauro Bigonzetti, a melding of European, American and African cultures set to songs by Ibeyi, twin sisters who sing in English and Yoruba.
But fear not, Atlanta. Battle and his dancers know what you want. Revelations, the company’s epic signature piece, the much-loved 1960 gospel ballet, closes each performance. Some company members have danced it more than 2,000 times. Its power is so immense, they say, they never tire of it.