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A Choreographer Inspired By Martin Luther King, Jr.

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Dec 14, 2016
A new dance in the Ailey season honors King's genius


On a recent work trip to Atlanta, dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin stumbled upon the inspiration for a dance. Touring the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, she found herself enraptured in a room devoted to the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

She was especially taken by audio and video recordings of his speeches and sermons. "His voice has so much cadence and there's so much rhythm in it – it's musical," Boykin says. "The more I investigated, and downloaded speeches and different CDs that had his work on them, the more amazed I became at this genius of a man. He truly was a scholar. He was knowledgeable about everything. All I could think about was: How can I transfer this into movement?"

The answer to that question is in r-Evolution, Dream, Boykin's new work that is playing through December 28 as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's season at City Center.

Although King's actual voice isn't heard during the piece, the spirit of his words infuses everything. "I worked for several months using his speeches in the studio," says Boykin, who has been a dynamic and versatile Ailey mainstay since 2000. "[I was] using only the words, no music – just Dr. King's voice. Those exact phrases, in their entirety, are in the work. It's not something that's separate, even though you won't hear the words."


During that early development period, Boykin was working on her own time while on the company's extensive national tour, and she investigated further with fellow company member Michael Jackson, Jr. "By June, I put some material on video, and made an appointment to see Mr. [Robert] Battle, [Ailey's artistic director]," she recalls. "I said, 'I have an idea for a piece, and here's some of the movement. What do you think? Really, I wouldn't have this idea if you hadn't taken me to Atlanta!'

"He took his time to think about it, then told me that he really responded to it."

Soon Boykin – whose previous work for Ailey was Go in Grace, a 2008 collaboration with Sweet Honey In the Rock – had a spot in the repertory for the company's five-week New York season. For music, she reached out to her friend Ali Jackson, a percussionist and composer who is the principal drum chair with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. His original score adds a rich layer of varied moods and dramatic intensity.

"As collaborators, we definitely are a part of each other's process," Boykin says. "In some sections, the choreography was already there. I would send him the video and Ali would write the music. He would send me demos and tapes, and I would make suggestions. I was at recording sessions, in the studio with the musicians – doing the movement, seeing what will work. I asked for things to be played at a different tempo."


Words, the original inspiration for the piece, remain part of r-Evolution, Dream. During and between its 11 sections, there are brief, recorded texts drawn from writers whom King quoted in his own work. These include excerpts from William Cowper's The Negro's Complaint, Isaac Watts' False Greatness, and lines from a Shakespeare sonnet. Boykin also included some "lyrics" she wrote herself, drawing on pivotal themes from King's words.

To record the texts, Boykin turned to Leslie Odom, Jr. (They've been friends for almost 20 years, well before he won the Tony Award for playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton.) Odom brings his distinctive musicality to the words, helping them create their own dialogue with the score.

"I met [Leslie] in Philadelphia when he was 16," Boykin says. "He was in a dance class at Philadanco. Then I became re-acquainted with him during an Ailey pre-performance talk at the LA Music Center, when he was living and working there. I was onstage speaking, and I looked out in the audience and saw his face. I couldn't believe it!"

Boykin is especially excited that she's been able to include six members of Ailey II, the organization's junior ensemble, in the cast. They help enrich the range of characters and connections that are evoked – particularly in a section depicting mothers and daughters. "I know every single character in this piece," she says. "There's a woman who represents my great-grandmother, another who is suggested by my mother, who was an educator and a businesswoman. I feel like everyone is represented."

Given its layered elements and sizable cast – not to mention timely and relevant themes – this dance is notably ambitious. "I'm not a heavy choreographer," says Boykin, who even designed the costumes for the piece. "But I think that I can share when I'm frustrated about something – as long as there is a glimmer of light. I would like to know that there is a way out, a way to kindness and to compassion."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Ailey's season at City Center. Go here to browse our latest offers.

Photos by Paul Kolnik. Top photo: A scene from 'r-Evolution, Dream'

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.