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PBS Salutes Black History Month.

To celebrate Black History Month, PBS has scheduled two programs, "A Hymn for Alvin Ailey," a tribute to the Ailey legacy, on Dance in America; and a three-evening, six-hour documentary, I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, which includes some--but not a great deal--on dancers and choreographers. (I should add that both programs were not in their final form when submitted for review in late fall.)

The Ailey tribute, officially scheduled for February 17, follows the familiar, but disappointing, format of interweaving documentary footage and interviews with performance shots without ever showing the viewer the entire dance. Much of the narration is superimposed on the dancing and relegates it to a supporting rote.

The work performed, Hymn, was choreographed by Judith Jamison, the Ailey company's current artistic director, in collaboration with Anna Deveare Smith, an actress and performance artist, in 1993. Jamison's goal was to reveal Ailey's legacy not only through the dancers' bodies but in the words of those company members who remembered him. Smith, who interviewed the dancers, edited and recited their impressions during each performance.

Unfortunately, the program is so broken up by interviews on camera that the viewer gets no sense of Hymn's total structure; however director Orlando Bagwell does select moments in the dance that relate to the reflections of former and current Alley dancers heard on the sound track. Often, Smith speaks for them, moving in proximity to the dancers. While the dancers are often shown en masse, striking angular poses in precise linear formations, variety is revealed in stunning solos for individual dancers, a quintet for a woman and four men, and an intimate pas de deux. Their dancing bodies, clad in practice clothes, appear shaped from malleable steel, with strength and plasticity equal partners in their spirited performance. The focused energy and the strong etching of shape in space are shared by young 'dancers, for whom Ailey is a legend, and veterans, for whom he was a mentor. Jamison appears to know their inner lives and choreographs with these very much in mind.

The images of Ailey himself are bittersweet. Mostly he is speaking candidly about his work; a few precious clips show him simply running and--a magnificent moment--in an early performance of his signature work, Revelations. He remembers his Texas childhood, his training with Lester Horton, his desire to translate his experience into dance, and his determination to build a company. Alley states, "The dance came from the people; it should always be given back to the people."

Others interviewed include his early classmate and partner, Carmen de Lavallade, dancers George Faison and Sylvia Waters, and Jamison and the company's associate artistic director, Masazumi Chaya; they share humane recollections of a profoundly gifted artistic leader, much loved and missed.

The dance segments included in the three-part I'll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, scheduled to air February 1-3, seem too small a component of the series, considering the importance of dance as an expression of African-American culture in this century. The last hour of the series, which examines the current cultural landscape, focuses on choreographer-dancer Bill T. Jones in the most extended segment on dance. While it is understandable that the producers chose the highly visible and talented Jones for his thoughtful, articulate expression, it would have been refreshing to hear from his contemporaries, many of whom are women. Willa Jo Jawole Zollar, Bebe Miller, and Blondell Cunt, for example, have had little national media exposure, nor have they been the subject of extensive documentaries.

As it stands, much of the footage for the section on Jones is taken from Bill T. Jones: Dancing to the Promised Land, produced by Antelope West/BBC-TV in 1994 and subsequently shown on PBS, although some of Jones's chronological account of his creative development and the various artistic influences that have shaped him is new. There is a wonderful sequence of him dancing with the cocreator of his company, the late Arnie Zane.

In its fourth hour, entitled "The Dream Keepers," the series chronicles the achievements of African Americans during Cold War America of the 1950s and focuses on attempts by black dancers to break the race barrier in classical ballet, a subject too infrequently discussed, both then and now. (A 1996 seminar, "Classic Black," held at Lincoln Center, brought many of these dancers together to consider both past and present.)

Arthur Mitchell, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem and former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, had the success story of that period--a principal black dancer in a white ballet company. The counterexperience of rejection based on prejudice is told by Delores Browne. A dancer who was praised in class for her excellence but who could not find a job, Browne eventually gave up dancing. Her story and that of other artists for whom the race barrier was impenetrable is one that must be told. The series reaches levels of excellence and responsibility when it features these unsung artists.

Rose Anne Thom, a contributing editor of Dance Magazine, is a member of the dance faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and is currently an associate dean of studies at the college.
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Author:Thom, Rose Anne
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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