Alvin Ailey Dance Company performing “Walking Mad”

Countering Culture: Is There Actually Meaning?

During Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s performance in Zellerbach Hall, I could not help but think throughout the two and a half hour show, “What is the message? What is actually supposed to be going on in the performance?”

While I was stunned by the physical feats and the raw artistic talents each dancer had, I could not help but be left a little confused as to what was actually going on in each piece. Perhaps it was just my naive eyes and lack of proper dance knowledge, but guessing by the emotions exuding from each dancer, I knew that there was a story going on that I was not grasping. Especially during “Walking Mad,” there was constantly so much movement going on and as each act flowed into another with costume changes and new dancers, I was left confused as to how it all tied together.

Before “Walking Mad,” during the intermission, I briefly read the brochure and part of the background information on the choreographer and piece, and had expected to see a ballet — a traditional ballet with pointe shoes and pirouettes. So when the curtains rose and all of these characters kept on showing up, I lost any sense of understanding I thought I had. Using Ravel’s ‘Bolero,’ a very classic and familiar piece, the dance was mixed with theatricality and quirky movements that I was not expecting at all. Each act of the piece could have been interpreted in many different directions — were the men assaulting the lady? Were they trying to flirt with her? Or maybe they were her ghosts trying to haunt her…. Ranging from all emotions, happy to sad, scared to elated, each act covered so much and used the same props in various manners.

But as I was sitting there in awe of the dances, I started wondering why I was trying so hard to understand the story. Obviously, it would be crucial in understanding the performance on a deeper level but there was so much in front of me already that was tangibly amazing. The piece could have very well not even had an underlying message and been just as wonderful. The innovative and creative ways of using the wall stunned me and the majority of the audience. The dancers had us laughing and clapping throughout the entire performance, regardless of our individual understanding of what actually was going on.

Behind the Scenes: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in “Walking Mad”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtlL6FpTD7s

After watching Robert Battle, the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey, describe the meaning and importance of this piece, the piece as a whole made more sense to me. But after reflecting on Battle’s words, I came to the realization, does it actually really matter if what I interpreted from the piece is different than what he envisioned? With modern and postmodern performances and arts, it is all about the “avant-garde” feeling. While the underlying “meaning” of a piece holds value, is not entirely necessary to be able to feel and perhaps even understand the piece and the emotions behind it. Maybe what is more important is the raw emotion and reaction as opposed to always having to send out a particular message. This thought loomed with me throughout the rest of the course, and it was not until the last lecture of the semester, did I fully come to understand and appreciate this notion.

Listening to the conversation between Mark Pauline and Amy Critchett on April 25th in BAMPFA’s theatre, and their discussion on being a “believer” and having a “purpose” behind their work, I came to the conclusion that everyone has their own means and ways on how they work best. Whether it be through a machine made out of recycled pieces of metal, or a dance piece that has been passed down for generations, each artist — intentional or not — creates piece of art that have their own story, journey and purpose. While Mark Pauline identifies as a “non-believer” and has no intentions or purpose behind the machines he makes, because he is in a counterculture space, his audience will always find some form of message from his pieces. Amy Critchett on the other hand, is a true “believer” and tries to have a goal and purpose behind everything she does. Regardless thought, we as humans will always try to draw meaning from an action and while maybe the outcome itself has no meaning, the process always will.

Bay Lights

Whether it be creating and establishing a dance company, or building destructive robots, or even funding light installations on the Bay Bridge, in order to produce products and projects that counter cultures, artists must find it within themselves to have the passion and drive to see their ideas come to fruition. One thing that is so unique about the counterculture spaces, is that the effect caused by a piece of art is greater than the artist itself. Alvin Ailey empowered African Americans to believe that they were equal and just as talented of dancers. Mark Pauline has shed a new light onto machinery and robot battles. Amy Critchett lit up the stage for new forms of art, and helped expanded the realm of art out of the gallery. The list of creators goes on and on, and what they pass on is unlimited. What an audience sees from a piece of art, is not only the art itself, but what went into it. Everyone and anyone’s reaction will be different, but the fact that there is an evoked emotion and thought process is what is most important, when countering culture.

Work Cited:

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. By Alvin Ailey. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Berkeley. 24 March. 2017. Performance.

“Behind the Scenes: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in “Walking Mad”.” Youtube, uploaded by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 22 Nov 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtlL6FpTD7s