Susan Manning, a professor of English, theater, and performance studies at Northwestern University, is a hell of a historian. In Modern Dance, Negro Dance, subtitled Race in Motion, she analyzes the period from the dawn of modern dance in the late 1920s to the death of Alvin Ailey in 1989, offering a historiography that documents the fate of black American dance. She derives many of her arguments from the critical writing of the era. Both her study and Thomas F. DeFrantz’s Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture begin and end with evocations of Ailey’s Revelations, the 1960 masterwork that launched the late choreographer’s career and continues to fill City Center for a month every winter.
A white woman whose enthusiasm for modern dance sprouted when she saw Ailey’s Revelations as a high schooler, Manning sets herself no less a task than parsing all the aspects of “otherness”—race, politics, class, gender, and sexual orientation—that inflected the New York dance community at mid-century. From its distinctly segregated origins to Helen Tamiris’s appropriation of spirituals to the melding, after World War II, of Negro (to use the common parlance of the time) dancers into the company of Martha Graham, modern dance embraced and foreshadowed the several social revolutions that shook the country in the ’60s and ’70s.
Dance critics clung stubbornly, Manning demonstrates, to notions of racial difference and hetero-normativity, and to habits of preaching. White choreographers felt free to plumb the folklore and rituals of other cultures, while black ones had a tougher row to hoe, both in gaining acceptance for a similarly wide range of expression and in finding patronage for their work. She reports on the prices of tickets, the impact of the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Unit, and the necessity (and transparency) of the closet as a refuge for the generation of choreographers that included José Limón, Merce Cunningham, Ailey, and even Doris Humphrey.
A portrait of the city in all its political, cultural, social, and economic variety jumps from her pages; though analysis of specific choreographies is part of her process, she’s also engaged by the complex interrelation between Broadway and the leftist dance troupes of the ’30s, between the blacklist and the closet in the ’50s. She positions dances like Martha Graham’s American Document, Doris Humphrey’s Day on Earth, Pearl Primus’s masterworks, and Revelations in the variously fraught sociohistorical moments of their creation and performance.
DeFrantz’s study, which Manning read in manuscript and acknowledges as a source, is not the first book about the protean Ailey, who was born in hardscrabble Texas in 1931 and died in 1989 after creating close to 80 works. But it is perhaps the most comprehensive, combining biography, criticism, the analysis of dance criticism, and a sort of corporate history, siting the now firmly established Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in the international cultural landscape.
A writer and director who has taught at the Ailey school and is now an associate professor of theater arts at M.I.T., DeFrantz once described himself to me as “beige.” He’s also an accomplished tap dancer. In Dancing Revelations he uses Ailey’s life and career as an armature on which to hang provocative discussion of African American life since the mid ’50s, and includes a detailed catalog of the choreography. Interspersed with his chapters of historical analysis are what he calls “breaks,” short essays “in which an insistent beat is interrupted by a flash of contradictory rhythmic ideas.”
Both volumes document the way employment on the Broadway stage, for dancers and choreographers, underwrote the development of concert dance. “Broadway paid higher wages than any other patronage source at midcentury,” Manning notes. After his initial visit to New York as choreographer of Lester Horton’s Los Angeles-based troupe after Horton’s sudden death in 1953, Ailey moved here in 1954 and performed immediately in House of Flowers. In demand for such commercial work, he found it harder to find patronage for his creative endeavors. The bittersweet coda to both books can be seen rising on West 55th Street, where the new headquarters of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—solvent now for more than a decade and generously supported by the country’s largest corporations—is scheduled to open in November.