Ailey in Africa Part Three: Celebrating Our Common Humanity

When I was 8 years old, I saw Judith Jamison in a video dancing the solo called ‘Cry’ and and when I saw her dance, I said “I wanna be like that woman.” When Ailey came to South Africa in 1997, they had auditions. Be who you are normally, don’t exaggerate. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t normally do, except be terrific. This was like a kind of deja vu moment to even see the woman live. Because I remember going to the audition, I saw her smiling, and I was grinning like “Oh my God,” and then I made it to Ailey and I was off to New York in ’98. When I went to Ailey, for the first time I had black people teaching me and for me that was part of a whole new experience because my teacher was white, who taught me ballet, and people who treated me like, I didn’t feel like the other. There is a very large difference on the ground in terms of dance in this country since Ailey came the first time. Maybe some of the seeds of what we Maybe some of the seeds of what we South African contemporary dance companies. What happened 17 years ago certainly urged it on and certainly watered the land. The role of the arts is to keep the soul of the individual aligned, to keep the soul of the individual knowing that there is a greater accountability in the work we do to the people. Today we hosted the Alvin Ailey Dance Company to the Apartheid museum. It’s a great honor for us. We created this museum as a memorial, not only to go back to the history of the suffering of our people, but to represent both sides and in the end, reconcile, in line with social cohesion and reconciliation. We were very fortunate, we got the artists the photographers, the film makers, and people who had all the artifacts that we needed to exhibit, so as to be able to give a visitor a holistic experience. It was a very emotional experience being in the apartheid museum, seeing the history of this country unfolding and seeing people rise up for their sense of freedom and for equality. What struck me was how the arts were intertwined within the revolution. Reflecting back on the first time coming to South Africa shortly after apartheid, it was really interesting to be in Soweto, to be able to do outreach and then to be here today, it’s quite beautiful to see how the technique of dance has progressed. We’re here teaching them Horton, a dance that we all trained in as Ailey dancers, you know, at The Ailey School, and then to have a cultural exchange where they showed me a dance based off of tap dancing, to learn something that they’re doing right now you know the “in” dance, it just changes you a little bit. Dances that we’re doing back home, the ‘nae nae,’ and the ‘Sponge Bob, it all stems from an African dance that the tribes did earlier, and they just morphed and manifest into something else. I definitely see that dance is more accessible here because it’s something that has been a part of their history for a long period of time. Culture is what brings peoples together and the work by the dance company here in South Africa, I’m sure will build a new generation of fans, I’m sure will inspire a dozen or so dancers that never thought that they had the talent to dance, and that’s what you want with cultural ambassadors. It’s a huge responsibility and it’s a responsibility that you have to want to take on. You know, because you, you’re representing not only you your country, your hometown, your family and Mr. Ailey and what his thoughts were about dance and the feeling that you get from working in his works. When we perform in Japan, or China, or any other country, they don’t really know what the song is about, but then on the stage what the dancer does with this music, I think that they just feel it. Well I think Judith Jamison put it in a nutshell, it speaks directly to the human spirit. I’ve experienced it all over the world. People are standing immediately after the final drop to the floor, and people clapping, and responding in such a visceral way. Whether you are a religious person or not, it’s a spiritual touching of each individual person. Mr. Ailey’s Company and Duke Ellington, both were considered cultural ambassadors by the United States because of the great work that they did, and it’s because their work, their art, brings people together, and when you bring people together, then you can begin to have the kinds of conversations that governments begin to have over time, but it starts because the people are comfortable with each other. It’s like I’m letting you in my front door, into my living room, to see how I live. The music that they use, jazz and I think the spiritual side of it, the use of music with the church message is is something that speaks to this country right across the board. This continent of mine, 2015 is going to have the largest population 65 percent is going to be under 19 years old. How do we give the young kids of the world today dignity? How do you give them identity? For them to understand that everything that is going around with technology means nothing if you have no culture, and bringing Alvin Ailey here, I’ve seen the reaction of the South African young kids that are next to me, how they react to the movement that transcends Europe, America, and Africa. You respond to it immediately. We are one people. We are all Africans. It doesn’t matter how we slice it, it all boils down to what story you want to tell. We kinda operate more or less the same as Alvin Ailey. We’re into this outreach development which is quite important for everyone, I mean, around us and and the schools itself and also what I’ve realized here in South Africa is that theater, it’s not that much exposed. We appreciate the fact that you guys came and you went around and teaching these kids about where exactly dance comes from. With the new dancers they bring this fire you know, they bring a new energy and it’s sometimes it wakes me up. You know and I feed off with that and I think that that’s what’s beautiful about dance that you give and take from each other. Thank you so much for making the long journey to South Africa. Many of us have seen you dance or have tickets to see you dance, and while it’s a treat for us to do that and for the thousands of South Africans who enjoy your performances I hope the members of the Alvin Ailey team are also able to enjoy this amazing country and it’s warm and hospitable people. So the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater first visits to South Africa in 1997 to commemorate the lifting of the international cultural boycott and times have changed, but the need for deeper understanding between our people remains, and that’s why their visit here is so important. What politics demonizes, art humanizes. I first saw Alvin Ailey when they came to South Africa in 1997, and when I saw them live on stage, I said to myself, “That’s the kind of company I want to create in this country, to be the epitome of our democracy, to be the epitome of our foundation for our forefathers, for what they’ve been fighting for all these years, to free us from the mental slavery, to free us from colonial slavery.” And the Ailey Dance Theater has created that for me. Tonight symbolizes everything that is who we are as a company, as a country, as people of this continent, and we just wanted to share it with the Ailey company, with the visitors, with the guests around here, to say that we are united because we share something that is common humanity. Being here it’s almost like just a reminder of why ‘Revelations’ has the affect that it has on audiences all over the world. It’s imbued with that sense of celebrating our common humanity and that reminds me of why I make a dance in the first place. It’s the single act of communicating something that gives us all courage. Without courage, we can’t do anything else, and I think I will leave with a little bit more courage from this experience.


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