By Walter Rutledge
In 1971, Alvin Ailey created Cry, one of his signature dance works, as a birthday present for his mother Lula Elizabeth Ailey. Ailey dedicated the ballet to “all black women everywhere — especially our mothers.” The three-part ballet, set to popular and gospel music by Alice Coltrane, Laura Nyro and Chuck Griffin, depicts a woman’s journey through the agonies of slavery to an ecstatic state of grace. Cry premiered at New York City Center on May 4, 1971.
Cry was initially performed by many of the Ailey company’s leading female dancers, each brought a special quality to the role. Estelle Spurlock excelled in the opening section with a quiet dignity and grace. Sara Yarborough’s interpretation of Been On A Train had a spellbinding lyricism. But it was Judith Jamison who truly captured the public’s imagination.
Something About John Coltrane (Album Version) [feat. Pharoah Sanders] by Alice Coltrane
Cry, like its male counterpart Love Songs (1972), is a multi-faceted solo requiring a virtuosic performer. Choreographer and visionary Alvin Ailey crafted three tone poems in movement making a bold, regal and heroic statement at the start of the defiant and turbulent 1970’s. For those of us who had the privilege of seeing Jamison dance Cry it remains an indelible memory.
Jamison herself is heroic. At first glance she should not have been on the stage. Taller than many male dancers, her ample breasts, slight low abdominal pudge and extra long limbs were the antithesis of the dance aesthetic. Even her close-cropped hair was in defiance of the modern dance hair bun. Jamison achieved modern dance stardom by ignoring convention and through her tenacity, conviction and talent forged a new aesthetic.
In a New York Times article by Valerie Gladstone, DANCE; The Long Shadow Of Ailey’s Great ‘Cry’ (published on November 26, 2000) Jamison and Gladstone discuss the opening night of Cry.
The opening night of ”Cry” was a dancer’s nightmare. Ailey had given Ms. Jamison the ballet only in sections; she’d never danced it straight through. Trying on her costume for the first time at the technical rehearsal, she discovered with alarm that it had a high waist. ”I’m big breasted,” she laughs, ”and I looked like Mt. Rushmore. Alvin knew my heart was sinking.” So rather than do a complete run-through, she spent the afternoon trying to find a costume replacement.
Ailey sent someone to buy two long-sleeved leotards with boat necks — two because the sleeves of one wouldn’t have been long enough for her arms. (Ms. Jamison is 5 foot 10 inches tall.) The two were sewed together, and over that she wore her skirt from the ”Wading in the Water” section of ”Revelations.”
”Do you know how many washings it had gone through?” she asks. ”It was like tissue paper.”
The skirt was then sewed to the leotard. ”Once I was in it,” she says dourly, ”I was in it.” Her ordeal didn’t end there. As she danced and began to sweat, the costume started slipping down. In more than one way, her performance deserved an ovation.
Been On A Train by Laura Nyro
At the start of the third section the dancer has already performed for over ten minutes, and the last section is almost a non-stop coda. Jamison’s nubian form glistened, her leotard completely drenched and the audience responded by clapping the rhythm, as if to help her on her journey. She stops, smiles pass the footlights and begins a series of head rolls until her arms and back rippled with an almost possessed quality- the audience always responded with thunderous applause and often vocal screams of praise. As the light eventually fade Jamison joyously danced into the darkness.
Right On Be Free by Voices Of East Harlem
In recent years when performed as a complete work Cry has been presented as a trio. I first saw it performed this way at the Ailey 25th Anniversary Gala in 1983. Spurlock, Yarborough and Donna Wood performed the sections respectively and at the end of the third section all three women danced into the darkness. Jamison (dressed in a stunning multi-tiered flowing gown) had introduced the dance, and in the final crossing she joined the three ladies onstage to the delight of the audience.
This was a wonderful novel event introduced by George Faison who produced the 25th anniversary gala. Through sharing the artistry of three women (who had all danced the entire work) it fulfilled the universality Ailey expressed in his dedication. Unfortunately in recent years the trio performance version as too often become has become the norm.
Integrity of the work is maintained by the complete Cry was performed by only one artist. Part of its power is the performer’s journey and transformation from subjugation to empowerment. This journey from struggle to triumph is much more compelling through one fully developed character pushed to their artistic and physical limits. That is the true majesty of Cry and the magic of Alvin Ailey.
In Video: Deborah Manning performs Cry. Manning is a Philadelphia native who studied at the The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and danced with Philadanco (both founded by Joan Myers Brown) before joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1981.
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