1/13/23 O&A NYC SHALL WE DANCE FRIDAY: Ancestral Voices- Dianne McIntyre, Romare Bearden and Cecil Taylor

One of Bearden’s early dance collaborations was the modern dance work Ancestral Voices choreographed by Dianne McIntyre and presented by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At the suggestion of company founder and artistic director Alvin Ailey, Romare Bearden was commissioned to create the visuals for the work which premiered on the Ailey company, May 13, 1977.

Set to a score by jazz great, Cecil Taylor, Ancestral Voices has been described as an African ritual interpreted through the modern dance idiom. The cast included Ailey standouts Estelle Spurlock, Alistair Butler and Dyane Harvey. In addition to the front curtain, Bearden also created a backdrop, and designed the costumes and headpieces.

Bearden was a wonderful storyteller. And enjoyed retelling the story of creating the visuals for Ancestral Voices. Within  those retellings he mentioned how he and his wife Nanette have unsuccessfully tried to retrieve the set and costumes. “They tell us they have just disappeared”, he would simply say.

New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff attended the opening night performance. In a review published the next day on May 14th, 1977, Ms. Kisselgoff reported:

“Ancestral Voices is an abstraction of an African ritual, and the abstract note is obvious from the start in Romare Bearden’s beautiful front curtain of foliage and African forms. The theme of ritual onstage is the world’s four elements – earth, water, air and fire.”

The taping took place on a warm summer evening in Central Park dancer Dyane Harvey added, “I viewed the footage and was gently reminded of the experience of filming Ms. McIntyre’s work during that summer. The cast was comprised of Alistair Butler, Charles Grant, Bernadine Jennings, Dorian Williams and Dianne (McIntyre). As mentioned in the interview we embodied elemental forces against the beautiful backdrop designed and crafted by Romare Bearden. The actual filming process, in the scheme of dance filming, was painless. (Third World Cinema…?) I recall thinking how exhilarating it was to be outside at night performing Dianne’s spirited choreography with so much lavish color and nature surrounding and inspiring us!”
Dy

In a recent correspondence with Dianne McIntyre about the collaboration she wrote:

Hello Walter,

Here is a bit of background for you: Yes, Anna Kisselgoff wrote about the piece, which I was very sorry to read. It is a very bad review for a piece that I must say, was not my best work, and unfortunately (for me) because it had the beautiful costumes and sets by Romare Bearden.

Alvin Ailey invited me to do a work and suggested that Romare Bearden could do the costumes. I was very honored by that. In the work the dancers represented the four elements of nature – air, earth, fire and water. Romare created costumes so intriguing, unique, monumental that they looked like his collages come to life. The poster for that year marketing the Ailey brand was Romare Bearden’s rendering of his costume for Fire. A white and red poster – must be a collector’s item today.

Fortunately, a couple of years later, in a film about Romare was a segment I put together of excerpts from the dance. We shot it in Central Park in front of a fountain during one daytime and evening. The gigantic scrim created from a drawing Romare made for the dance was mounted on the lawn and I had the dancers performing in front and behind the scrim. It was a beautiful adventure.

I am grateful to Alvin Ailey that he introduced me to such a master artist. Romare gave me advice, guidance about my journey as an artist and I have always held him in my vision of the highest one can be as an artist. What he created and the way he worked always made me want to be like him – from watching him I say to myself: Stick to your vision, go for it all the way, don’t waiver, produce and practice every day even in the quiet.

Thank you, Romare Bearden.

Ancestral Voices

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