Slain in the spirit

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 9, 2010
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Company members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater<br>perform <i>Revelations.</i> Photo: Andrew<br>Eccles
Company members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
perform Revelations. Photo: Andrew

It can't have escaped notice that Tennessee Williams' gay fiction is extremely weak, while his heterosexual tragedies The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are arguably the greatest things ever written by an American playwright, and rank with the works of Euripides. Stick with me a minute. Many balletomanes would agree that Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free (a dance about three WWII sailors on shore leave and the two girls they meet) is the finest ballet on American themes ever made – yet Robbins created the roles of the all-American boys, dancing the most lovable sailor himself, not long after the traumatic experience of being rejected by the military, failing his draft physical, getting a 4-F, because he was queer. Third in this series would be Alvin Ailey's Revelations, which plays this week in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall and has been danced all over the world. Revelations drives audiences out of their minds with joy, and is universally regarded as the greatest ballet on African American themes ever created – and you guessed it, Ailey was gay, died in 1989 of AIDS, which, to spare his mother the shame of it, he asked his doctor to call it something else.

All three of these more-or-less closeted gay artists were highly motivated by the desire to make their parents proud. Overachieving, yes, and by current standards, it looks like they were trying to make up in advance for the disgrace they feared any moment they'd bring down. They were co-dependent, deeply mired in their family dynamics. But look what they gave us – and look how well it holds up. Actresses keep coming along who want to play Blanche; ballerinos want to dance Fancy Free's Rumba Boy; and the Ailey company still dances Revelations on almost every program, 20 years now after Ailey's death, and almost 50 years after he made it out of the church experiences he grew up amidst in Texas. The Gospel songs and the old spirituals that his mother loved (and which, I should maybe disclose, I grew up among as a white boy in the South) were always dance music, and would often stimulate some sinner in church to get slain in the spirit, stand up, and shout and dance in the aisle. They are literally intoxicating, whatever the mood, from the acutely painful and private ("Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," "I've been rebuked, and I've been scorned") to the ecstatic "Wade in the Water" with which it ends, when the whole audience is likely to stand up and start dancing. The joy-juice in this ballet is a sovereign remedy for oppression, and I urge everyone to see it, even if you're no longer able to stomach Christians. We need to claim Alvin Ailey.

Fairy tale

We're living in a sophisticated time. This month it's possible to see two big-time dance shows with important gay content (though in Revelations, the gay part is like the part of the iceberg that's underwater). The other is a new-to-us ballet version of The Little Mermaid, which opens March 20. It makes overt reference to Hans Christian Andersen's homosexual longings as underpinnings to the tale of suffering for love that he cast in fairy-tale terms.

Most of my readers know, I hope, that this is the story of a mermaid who falls so powerfully in love with a human being that she is willing to leave her underwater world, to let her tail be split, to gain legs and walk every step in pain to be united with him. And also you should know that Danny Kaye played Hans Christian Andersen in the movie, and that there was no reference to his being gay in there (unless you think that anything with Danny Kaye in it  has to be understood as being gay through-and-through), and that there's a statue of the Little Mermaid on an island in Copenhagen harbor. It should be unsurprising, then, to hear that this ballet was created for the Royal Danish Ballet by their favorite living choreographer, John Neumeier, for the inaugural season of their new opera house in 2005.

Underwater ballets can make phenomenal use of dancers' grace, since they are trained to move in ways that amaze us; all reports say The Little Mermaid is a fabulous spectacle. All of Neumeier's ballets are complex; they often include a framing story like this one, of Andersen's painfully unrequited love, that comments on the fable itself. It remains to be seen if the gay subtext needs to be expressed, but no question, the ballerina Sarah van Patten will be glorious in the title role.