Alvin Ailey and Cal Performances: a 50-year collaboration, revelation

For Cal Performances, it’s hard to remember a time without the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The dance company first leapt onto the Zellerbach stage at UC Berkeley in 1968, and has been back every year since to perform a weeklong repertoire, lead workshops and participate in public forums on the campus.

“Revelations,” choreographed by Alvin Ailey (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater photo by Paul Kolnik)

The longstanding partnership is rare in the dance and performance world, says Cal Performances Director Matías Tarnopolsky.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship — we’ve grown together” said Tarnopolsky. “They know our theater, they know our audiences and they know our community intimately. That knowledge, that love and that connection has been passed down now for several generations of dancers, choreographers and artistic directors.”

Matthew Rushing on stage

Matthew Rushing performs to “Wade in the Water,” part of Alvin Ailey’s iconic piece, “Revelations.” (Alvin Ailey American dance Theater photo by Paul Kolnik)

Rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, who joined the company in 1992, was just 13 when he saw his first Ailey performance. “I’ll never forget it,” he said.

He was watching the company’s iconic piece, “Revelations,” a journey through African American spiritual music told in three parts, and it spoke to him. He had been baptized earlier that year, and when the song “Wade in the Water,” in which a woman prepares for her baptism, began, he felt connected to dance in a way he hadn’t before.

“I saw my life on stage,” said Rushing. “I didn’t know my life experiences could be seen and experienced on stage. It’s when I decided that I wanted to make a career of dance and that this was the company I wanted to commit my life to.”

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“Members Don’t Get Weary,” choreographed by Jamar Roberts (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater photo by Paul Kolnik)

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“Shelter,” choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater photo by Paul Kolnik)

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded by Alvin Ailey in 1958 in New York City with a group of seven young African American performers, and has become one of the best-known modern dance companies in the world. It’s now made up of 32 principal dancers and is led by artistic director Robert Battle.

Battle says the company, founded on the brink of the Civil Rights Movement, continues to break down walls that attempt to divide people based on race, class and culture.

“Some of the greatest lasting works of art have come through a moment where the arts needed to reflect what was going on at the time, and also have a sort of aspirational quality,” Battle said in an interview with Tarnopolsky last month. “In some ways, the times in which we live are not so different. There’s this sense of discord. I think that some of that still has to do with not recognizing the humanity in each other.” (Watch the full interview below.)

This year at Cal Performances, the dance company’s repertory will include new and old pieces, from a West Coast premiere of “Members Don’t Get Weary,” choreographed to the music of John Coltrane and “Mass,” inspired by Battle’s experience seeing a mass choir at Carnegie Hall to “The Golden Section” by Twyla Tharp and “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey.

It’s a repertory that fits perfectly, says Tarnopolsky, with this year’s theme of “joining generations” for Berkeley RADICAL (Research and Development Initiative in Creativity Arts and Learning), the Cal Performances’ initiative that aims to nurture artistic literacy and find new ways for audiences to engage with the performing arts through residency-based programming.

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“Mass,” choreographed by artistic director Robert Battle (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
photo by Paul Kolnik)

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“The Golden Section,” choreographed by Twyla Tharp (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater photo by Paul Kolnik)

“Alvin Ailey’s work is central and is the sort of germinating force for many generations who have come after him,” said Tarnopolsky. “We absolutely love having them every year at Cal Performances.”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s weeklong residency with Cal Performances begins today, April 10, and runs through Sunday, April 15. In addition to nightly performances, the dance company will hold workshops and forums. All are free and open to the public.

• Thursday, April 12: Brandi Catanese, a professor in theater, dance and performance studies and African American studies, will join Ailey artistic director Robert Battle to discuss the Berkeley RADICAL theme, “joining generations.”

• Friday, April 13: the company will hold three “Revelations” dance workshops in the morning, followed by flash mob at 12:30 p.m. on Lower Sproul Plaza.

• Sunday, April 15: Community dance class; registration is required.

For more information about the performances and community events or to buy tickets, visit the Cal Performances website.