Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Debuts 'Lazarus' To Celebrate 60th Anniversary The hour-long piece was created by choreographer Rennie Harris, who formed the first and longest running hip-hop dance touring company. Harris tells NPR's Michel Martin all about the new work.
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Debuts 'Lazarus' To Celebrate 60th Anniversary

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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Debuts 'Lazarus' To Celebrate 60th Anniversary

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Debuts 'Lazarus' To Celebrate 60th Anniversary

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ask anybody who's tried - It's hard to keep even a well-known arts institution going. To keep it going after its founder and namesake has died is even more impressive. But, to do that for some six decades, some might call that miraculous. So, at that standard, you can understand why the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater decided to celebrate its 60th anniversary this year by commissioning a new powerful work titled "Lazarus."

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) War is risen.

MARTIN: It's a celebration of the life and legacy of dance pioneer Alvin Ailey, who was born in rural Texas in the 1930s, went on to found an American dance institution, which continues to thrive even after his death 30 years ago. "Lazarus" was created by the Philadelphia-based hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, considered a pioneer in his own right. And he's with us now from our studios in Washington, D.C. Rennie Harris, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

RENNIE HARRIS: Of course. Thank you.

MARTIN: So when you got the call that you were chosen to commission this piece, you know, I just have to ask. I know you have a body of work of your own. But...

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: ...Was there something a little intimidating about it?

HARRIS: Yeah. What was intimidating is that they wanted me to make it around Mr. Ailey's life. So that was a little bit - that was - no, it was a lot scary.

MARTIN: (Laughter) A lot scary.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: A lot of your work - your recent work, I would say, is political. And, by that, I mean you have ideas that you want to express. And I was going to ask how you get ideas into dance. But I heard you talking about your work. And you said it's actually the other way. If I can paraphrase what you said and you can tell me what you mean, you said that if I know what you've been through, I know how you will move.

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I think that movement is the last manifestation of our reality, right? Our action defines who we are. A lot of times we like to think that our words are, you know. Oh, I'm this kind of person, that kind of thing. And really, it's an action, right? We know a person loves us because of the action that they take to show us. And so the same thing when it comes to dance. If you really want to know why this particular movement or style or cultural movement is important or relative, then you want to study what was going on politically, economically and socially in that particular era. Whatever that was, the physical expression is embodied. And that's the last manifestation of how a person may feel.

MARTIN: Your work is so connected to who you are, where you come from. And I'm wondering about the experience of then trying to translate that into something that you're going to release to whoever outside of its own context.

HARRIS: I think if I thought of it that way, it would freak me out. I know what I'm creating is coming from me and my experience growing up. And in the very beginning of the company, you know, the first three or four rows would just get up and be out because my work dealt with molestation, rape, racism. But I was just using street dance and hip-hop vocabulary to tell these stories. And so often when you hear, oh, the hip-hop company's coming, it's like the circus is coming to town. And they didn't realize I'm addressing stuff.

MARTIN: And to that end, "Lazarus" is a very challenging work in the sense that there are very strong themes that you have to take in. It's hard to describe it because it's a visual experience. But tell me, if you can, if you wouldn't mind, what you're going for. How would you describe it?

HARRIS: I thought I wanted to address slavery, post-slavery and civil rights because I found it interesting, you know? Everyone talked about Mr. Ailey - all of the works I've seen on him, they talked about him, the man. And I wanted to showcase what was happening around him and how he forged this vision through all of that.

MARTIN: It is a really remarkable story if you think about it. I mean, here's a person who's born in the '30s in rural Texas. It was not the most hospitable environment for an artistically...

HARRIS: Right, exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Minded young black man. And then, he goes on and creates a dance company - modern dance company, and it thrives to this day.

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: It is a really remarkable story, right?

HARRIS: Yeah. It's amazing. And I think the focus was to figure out how to give the people the sense of slavery. And so - and the way that I did that I felt like was, one, the music, what we call blues road (ph) you hear. It's like (vocalizing), like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

HARRIS: Ominous kind of thing and a dragging of bodies, you know? That sort of represents the migration here in the States. It represents slavery, families lost, ideas set into people's heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

HARRIS: So the dragging of bodies, I think I had - I was going to say I dreamt it, I only like daydreamed. I was like, oh, snap. I wanted, like, the whole stage to be bodies, you know? I couldn't get that look, so we kind of, like, did it, slowly. So that was poignant.

MARTIN: And there's even - forgive me for - I don't want to give it all away. There's a moment where the dancers are swaying...

HARRIS: "Strange Fruit."

MARTIN: ...In this very nuanced way. And, all of a sudden, you realize that it's depicting not just one lynching but the lynching of many. And it's sort of shocking.

HARRIS: Yeah. That section I call Strange Fruit, right? So I was like, oh, I wonder if they get up and relevate (ph), if they could hang - it look like they're hanging or whatever, you know? It gives me chills every time I see it. And once I have those three sort of symbolic movements, I knew that I've already represented this transition from slavery post and into civil rights.

MARTIN: The piece is getting rave reviews - right? - rave reviews. What do you make of the fact that people were sitting through this piece, it's getting wild acclaim from the audience and yet we're in a moment where people are having marches and yelling, you know, racist things and anti-Semitic things in the streets? I mean, what do you make of that?

HARRIS: Well, I think, you know, I've jumped on the platform Ailey that automatically brings people in, expecting that sort of - that thing is going to make it relative for today. When you see it, in my opinion, you have to think about what's going on today. You can't ignore it. And then, when you witness it, you're now responsible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

MARTIN: That was Rennie Harris, the choreographer of "Lazarus." It's a new two-act piece commissioned for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in commemoration of its 60th anniversary. The company's currently on a 21-city North American tour and will be performing "Lazarus" throughout the U.S. until May 12. And, Rennie Harris, who's obviously fighting a cold, thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE, "LAZARUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

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