THE BLOG
02/10/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2013

Alvin Ailey, the Obamas and America

WASHINGTON -- Lord knows I am no dance critic. But I do claim to know something about the country. So before the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater leaves the Kennedy Center here after its annual visit, I want to say something vaguely political about this famous, pioneering company.

Here it is: They helped make the America that made the Obama presidency possible.

And having done so, they now -- appropriately -- are striving to embody the ideals of universality amid diversity and individual self-worth that were at the troupe's core from the start, though obscured by more immediate missions.

I first saw Alvin Ailey in college in the late '60s, when they had just gained fame for dramatically bringing the spirit and history of old juke joints and black churches into Culture with a capital "C. " African Americans always had influenced dance, but Ailey showed how, and why that was important, and did so using impeccably (classically) trained dancers.

The mix of liberating emotion and restrained ballet technique was and is powerful.

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that young Michelle Robinson, dutifully attending her ballet lessons in Chicago, was inspired. Indeed she and her daughters usually attend an Ailey show here in their roles as First Lady and First Impeccably-Reared Kids.

I am also guessing that, when he isn't shooting skeet or playing hoops or watching ESPN, the president -- who settled his identity when he settled down with Michelle -- appreciates the Ailey fusion of folk and France, and the grace and confidence that studying them both gave his wife.

The Obamas won the White House in part because of their ability to move with that studied grace and confidence through the rutted, booby-trapped landscape of race in America. In that sense, Ailey and others literally helped lay the groundwork, by showing the beauty (and not just the fear and discord) of our distinct but intertwined roots as a polyglot nation.

The troupe's week here every winter draws to the Kennedy Center on opening night (for a gala and fundraiser as well as a performance) the most unselfconsciously integrated crowd of the year in the nation's capital.

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (such as Rep. Elijah Cummings), the White House (Valerie Jarrett) and African-American business leaders (such as John Rodgers and Debra Lee) were there this year. So, too, were Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Katharine Weymouth and Susan Eisenhower.

Like the crowd, the program (and the company) is integrated. Two of the three pieces on opening night were not specifically "black." The first, by a Czech choreographer, was a stark, athletic ode to wooing and love; the second, by an Israeli, was a scary, rhythmic meditation on the perils of tribal thinking.

The finale, of course, was "Revelations," the founding, circa-1960 dance that defined the group's original role as the rescuer and explainer of black experience through movement. Many in the audience had seen it dozens of times. Alvin Ailey, who choreographed it, died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58.

One dancer in "Revelations" was Megan Jakel of Detroit. She began ballet at age three and now, in her 20s, is one of Ailey's rising stars. She is noticeable in the cast because she is white.

"Since I am from Detroit, people sometimes call me the Eminem of dance," she said after the show. She explained that Ailey's modern dance program, associated with Fordham University in New York, is the best of its kind in the country, if not the world.

"If you want to do modern dance -- and it is what I have always wanted to do, even though I have the ballet background -- this is the place," said Jakel. "These are the people."

Well said. Enough said.

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