…but then I went to the performance dedicated to his memory by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on June 11. It was the best evening of dance that I have seen in a very long time. I will tell you why in a minute (and why each of you should run to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater by June 21 to see for yourself), but first: Dudley Williams (1938–2015).
No one who follows dance could have missed Dudley. He joined Alvin Ailey’s company 10 years before I first saw the company perform in 1974, and he was a star there for four decades until 2005. If you had ever seen him do his signature solo, “I Wanna Be Ready” from Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations—live on stage or on YouTube or even on my well-worn old-fashioned videotape—you would still remember it. It wouldn’t matter if you were a dance aficionado or my then-9-year-old son (he’s now 26) or my Sunday School class of third and fourth graders (I happened to show it to them just two weeks before Dudley’s death and, yes, I had a good reason). And if only you had seen Dudley in the Ailey company’s 2014 New Year’s Eve performance, rocking out as a special guest performer in “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” in Revelations, you would still remember it. He was having such a great time back on stage where he belonged, but not one bit greater than those of us who were watching and cheering in the audience.
When my daughter, Polly, entered the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program four years ago, I said one thing to her: “Take as many classes as you can with Dudley Williams and Milton Myers. That’s why you’re here. You will never see the likes of them again.” Thankfully, she did. Both quintessential performers, Dudley and Milton had become quintessential teachers for the next generation of Ailey students and dancers. We didn’t know then that we would lose Dudley so soon.
Last summer, Polly took a Graham class with Dudley (Dudley had danced in Martha Graham’s company before coming to Ailey)—her third class with him. She and another dancer demonstrated for him so that the new summer professional-level students would have someone to watch, someone who did things the way Dudley wanted them done. I had the great pleasure of observing a class, as I had done in earlier years.
Now, I am not a fan of Graham technique. But watching Dudley teach that class was eye-opening. He gave students the beauty and artistry of Graham, and he brought tears to my eyes. He challenged and motivated them, and he called it as he saw it. At one point, he admonished them with a line that went something like this: “Listen to the music. This isn’t an exercise class; it’s dancing.” He was absolutely right.
At the end of the class, I went up to him and said something like this, “Watching you teach this class and seeing Polly dance for you is worth every penny of Fordham’s tuition for four years. And that’s a lot of pennies.” He smiled, gracious as ever. I was dead serious. He was worth every penny.
At the June 11 performance, the Ailey company danced. It wasn’t just exercise. It wasn’t just movement. I have to admit that some of the contemporary pieces the Ailey company performs these days don’t look like dance to me. To paraphrase something my favorite ballet teacher once said, “All movement isn’t dance, you know.”
But performing in loving memory of Dudley, it was all dance on June 11. The most remarkable piece of the evening was the tribute performance of a solo that Alvin Ailey had choreographed for Dudley—“A Song for You” from Love Songs (1972). According to Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, who spoke movingly from the stage about Dudley, each of the men performing the solo that night as a five-man ensemble had been taught the solo by Dudley. And what dancers they were—the very best the Ailey company has to offer: Matthew Rushing, Glenn Allen Sims, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and Jamar Roberts. Each is an incredible dancer in his own right—each a powerful virtuoso performer with perfect classical lines. The effect of the five-man ensemble was breathtaking—full of grace and love. I hope that someone from Ailey recorded it, because it would be a best-seller. (Note to Artistic Director Robert Battle: If you all did not record it, do it again immediately and record it this time. You could raise a lot of money with that recording during your next membership drive. I am making my pledge right now—whatever it costs.)
Well, you won’t be able to see that again this season, I guess, but you can see two other pieces the company performed (check the schedule and hurry to get tickets). Choreographed by Talley Beatty in 1960 and first performed by the Ailey company in 1964, “Toccata” from Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot was restaged by Ailey Associate Artistic Director (and former amazing Ailey dancer) Masazumi Chaya and brought back into the Ailey repertory this year. The piece was “old school” in the best possible way. It brought back memories of the way the Ailey dancers danced when I first saw them. It seemed so right: group after group, men and women, 16 dancers coming and going from the stage. There was music and there were dance steps—both a bit traditional for some tastes now perhaps, but so magnificent. (Note to Artistic Director Robert Battle: Don’t ever lose this piece again, for heaven’s sake.) I’ve got to believe that Dudley, who also danced for Mr. Beatty, was smiling down for that one.
Then there was Exodus, choreographed by Rennie Harris this year and enjoying its world premiere at the June 11 performance. The piece was “new school” in the best possible way. Harris is all about hip-hop, and he is brilliant at it (he also choreographed Home, another masterful hip-hop piece that the Ailey company has performed). Exodus is standing-ovation good. And, make no mistake about it, it is dance. Though unbelievably energetic, it is not just exercise and it is not just movement. Hip-hop has its own dance vocabulary—just as Mr. Ailey and Mr. Beatty had theirs 50 years ago—and its own music and its own storytelling and its own emotion. Exodus is the complete package—not unlike its classical predecessors. (And I, as a fellow Philadelphian, personally appreciated the Phillies hat that Harris wore onstage during the bows.)
So, what a night it was—the old and the new, the joy and the grief. Polly and I wept during the performance of “A Song for You.” Anyone who knew Dudley did—anyone who had ever sat in an audience and watched him command the stage and anyone who had ever danced in one of his classes. Be at peace, Dudley. I pray you are still dancing.