Alexandra Marshall

The Democracy of Dance

Originally published in The Boston Globe, April 6, 2009

I'm on my way to Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean island whose active volcano is tame compared to last month's eruption of rioting following a 44-day general strike. Protests were initiated by a coalition of union groups demanding for low-wage workers a $250 monthly raise to compensate for the high cost of fuel and food, but with an unemployment rate of 60% for people under 25, "bands of armed youth" in hooded sweatshirts manned the barricades.

Ignoring the demonstrations for a full month, French President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon are accused by the coalition of "treating the troubles as a distant colonial flare-up." And though a settlement was negotiated and the violence has now reportedly subsided, once those initial demands came to be defined in terms of race and class, tensions simmering since slave days boiled over in this society where the traditional landowning families still control up to 90% of the estimated wealth.

My own connection there is to the antidotal Academie de Danse Deshauteurs, where the descendants of Europeans and Africans—the daughter of the island's police chief paired in dance with a street kid—are defined only by their talent and ambition. For nearly twenty years the academy has attracted dancers from around the Caribbean Basin to a festival culminating in an international competition, and though this year the crisis has forced cancellation of classes, the show will go on.

The competition's jury is headed by Denise Jefferson, director of the world class Ailey School where most of the dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) have been trained. She and I go way back, and so does her relationship with the academy's director, Lydia Deshauteurs, whose son Samuel has danced with AAADT along with his wife, Rosalyn Deshauteurs, a current member.

In this 50th Anniversary year, the celebration of Alvin Ailey's legacy makes for a full dance card, with the tributes including 75 Ailey School students in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. They danced down Broadway in the "Wade in the Water" section from "Revelations," the 1960 signature Ailey ballet masterpiece estimated by former New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning as having been performed in its first 20 years more often than the century-old "Swan Lake."

In her biography of Ailey, Dunning writes that he "re-created onstage the gestures and ceremony he remembered from his own baptism, exaltation rising up from the stirred waters of the snake-ridden pond behind the church in Rogers, Texas." The classic piece prompts audiences around the world to dance in their seats, and by popular demand, almost all performances on tour end with that primal "Revelations" experience of sin and salvation.

The Celebrity Series first presented the company here in Boston for two performances on a January Saturday in 1968, and Walter Pierce, later the executive director of the series, was in that audience. Calling AAADT "the most successful modern dance company in history," he still vividly recalls the moment when legendary dancer Judith Jamison appeared onstage in "Wade in the Water," her towering height made theatrical—this is Ailey's genius—by the still higher thrust of a ruffled umbrella.

Before his death in 1989 Ailey named Judith Jamison the guardian of his company, and having already entrusted the school to Denise Jefferson and the repertory ensemble Ailey II to another of his early dancers, Sylvia Waters, he ensured that AAADT would remain true to his original vision. Housed today in a state-of-the-art glass tower on West 55th Street, the promise lives on in the legs of the next generation, whose capacities are being stretched to meet Ailey's exacting expectations, and whose devotion to dance is a reciprocal means of fulfilling his faith in them.

Belief in the power of dance to express the full range of human experience is what also inspires the young dancers of Guadeloupe to realize their dreams, and during this week such faith might have the power to help heal an island community whose ancient cruelties have been revisited. A bottom-line correction must be provided for from abroad, but the democracy of dance can make possible the freer expression of an even deeper universal need.