An 'Ode' To Victims Of Gun Violence — From Alvin Ailey Dancers

Dec 10, 2019
Originally published on December 11, 2019 1:39 am

There are no gunshots in Ode. But it does begin with one dancer lying motionless on the floor, as a piano plays stark, detached chords.

The dancer gets up and is eventually joined by five other dancers, in flowing, circular motions. They dance together as an ensemble, but then one dancer falls and crumples to the floor. He's picked up by another dancer, but then two of them fall.

"The inspiration for the piece was a couple of years ago when there was this long stint of what appeared to be racially biased shootings by the police," says Jamar Roberts, who created this dance. "And that really disturbed me. And that really stayed with me for a very long time. And I started to think about what does it mean? What does it mean to me? What does it say about our world? What does it say about our community?"

Tonight, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will premiere Ode. Roberts, the first resident choreographer for the Ailey company, describes it "as an ode to gun violence in America," and says it was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and others.

Ode is set to a solo jazz piano score by the late Don Pullen called "Suite (Sweet) Malcolm (Part 1, Memories and Gunshots)."

"Piano embodies the beautiful, the celestial, the sublime," Roberts says. "But it also has this percussiveness about it that I really like."

Jamar Roberts, the first resident choreographer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is the creator of Ode.
Andrew Eccles / Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The piece has three distinct sections: what Roberts calls "life," then "death or despair," and then "afterlife," or a form of resolution. He says he built a "movement vocabulary" for each part.

When Ode premieres tonight, six men will perform it. In a couple of weeks, the same dance will be performed by an all-female cast.

"Once [Roberts] told us what it was about, about victims and families and survivors of gun violence in America, we kind of understood the two dynamics," says Ghrai DeVore-Stokes, the soloist in the all-female production. "Because the female cast, of course, we're mothers, we're sisters, we're aunts, we're daughters and also sometimes victims. But it is a predominantly male-centric issue."

Dancer Jeroboam Bozeman does the same steps with the all-male cast. He says some of the movement, particularly during the percussive middle section, is angular and intense. And some is in slow motion. But it's all very personal.

"These things impact me as a black male and a dancer living in America," Bozeman says. "I can't pretend that it doesn't have an effect on me. So, having small imagery of bodies laying down slowly, I think of it as laying bodies to rest and kind of giving them that closure for them to ascend."

As he's worked on Ode, Jamar Roberts has not only coached the dancers on the steps, but the meaning behind them: paying homage to the lives lost and the survivors who carry on.

"I think that art has power," Roberts says. "I think it has the power to bring things to light, and have people see the world in ways that they may not have seen. And dance says it without words. And I think that that is one of the most beautiful things about this art form, is that we don't use our words, but everybody knows exactly what the feeling is."

Audiences across the United States will be able to feel the power of Ode this winter as the Alvin Ailey company takes it on tour.

Nina Gregory edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We turn to art to try and process the world around us - the joys and the tragedies. Tonight, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will premiere a new dance piece in New York. It is called "Ode." The choreographer says the work is an ode to gun violence in America, and it was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and others. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: There are no gunshots in "Ode," but it begins with one dancer lying motionless on the floor, as a piano plays stark, detached chords.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON PULLEN'S "SUITE (SWEET) MALCOLM (PART 1, MEMORIES AND GUNSHOTS)")

LUNDEN: The dancer gets up and is eventually joined by five other dancers in flowing, circular motions. They dance together as an ensemble, but then one dancer falls and crumples to the floor. He's picked up by another dancer, but then two of them fall.

JAMAR ROBERTS: The inspiration for the piece was a couple of years ago when there was this long stint of what appeared to be racially biased shootings by the police.

LUNDEN: Jamar Roberts is the first resident choreographer for the Ailey company and created this dance.

ROBERTS: And that really disturbed me. And like, I started to think about what does it mean? You know, what does it mean to me? What does it say about our world? What does it say about our community?

LUNDEN: "Ode" is set to a solo jazz piano score by the late Don Pullen called "Suite (Sweet) Malcolm (Part 1, Memories And Gunshots)."

ROBERTS: You know, piano embodies the beautiful, the celestial, the sublime. But it also has, like, this percussiveness about it that I really like.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON PULLEN'S "SUITE (SWEET) MALCOLM (PART 1, MEMORIES AND GUNSHOTS)")

LUNDEN: The piece has three distinct sections.

ROBERTS: One being life, the middle section being death or despair and the end section being afterlife or some type of resolution.

LUNDEN: When "Ode" premieres tonight, six men will perform it. But in a couple of weeks, the same dance will be performed by an all-female cast. Ghrai DeVore-Stokes is the soloist and had questions for the choreographer about the casting.

GHRAI DEVORE-STOKES: Once he told us what it was about - about victims and families and survivors of gun violence in America, we kind of understood the two dynamics - because the female cast, of course, we're mothers, we're sisters, we're aunts, we're daughters and also sometimes victims. But it is a predominantly male-centric issue.

LUNDEN: Dancer Jeroboam Bozeman does the same steps with the all-male cast. He says some of the movement, particularly during the percussive middle section, is angular and intense. And some is in slow motion. But it's all very personal.

JEROBOAM BOZEMAN: These things impact me as a black male and a dancer living in America. So having small imagery of bodies laying down slowly, I think of it as laying bodies to rest and kind of giving them that closure for them to ascend.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON PULLEN'S "SUITE (SWEET) MALCOLM (PART 1, MEMORIES AND GUNSHOTS)")

LUNDEN: As he's worked on "Ode," Jamar Roberts has not only coached the dancers on the steps, but the meaning behind them - paying homage to the lives lost and the survivors who carry on.

ROBERTS: I think that art has power. I think it has the power to bring things to light - you know? - and have people see the world in ways that they may not have seen. And dance says it without words, and I think that that is one of the most beautiful things about this art form is that we don't use our words, but everybody knows exactly what the feeling is.

LUNDEN: And audiences across America will be able to feel the power of "Ode" this winter as the Alvin Ailey company takes it on tour.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON PULLEN'S "SUITE (SWEET) MALCOLM (PART 1, MEMORIES AND GUNSHOTS)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.