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A dance about gun violence is touring nationally with Alvin Ailey’s company

todayFebruary 14, 2024

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    A dance about gun violence is touring nationally with Alvin Ailey’s company NPR

Ode is choreographer Jamar Roberts' tribute to Black victims of police brutality.
Paul Kolnik/Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Ode is choreographer Jamar Roberts’ tribute to Black victims of police brutality. Paul Kolnik/Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Jamar Roberts did not initially know he would create a piece to address gun violence. But he did know he needed dance to cope, after years of headlines about its victims: Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, Philando Castile, Jordan Edwards and many, many more.

“It’s the first thing I thought I needed to do — just for my own self, to help process what I was seeing in the media,” Roberts told NPR. “It didn’t really come out like ‘Oh, I want to make a dance about this.’ I just started sort of moving. It just appeared.”

Ode is a poem to Black victims of police brutality. It was conceived in 2019, during his tenure as a resident choreographer at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It’s featured in the company’s national tour around the United States that continues through spring 2024.

Roberts’ work is heavy. It depicts death and purgatory.

The stage is very simple. A huge backdrop of funeral flowers hung upside down nearly touch the dancers’ heads. One lies motionless on stage, their back to the audience. Five other dancers meticulously move forward and as an ensemble, try to support the fallen. Gun violence is not explicit in the work.

Ode is set to Don Pullen’s 2014 jazz composition, “Suite (Sweet) Malcolm (Part 1 Memories and Gunshots).”

In some performances, the dancers are all men. In others, all women. Roberts said they allude to family and friends left behind, in the wake of tragedies.

These tragedies are increasing. According to a recent report released by the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence, 2023 marked the deadliest year for homicides committed by police since the organization began tracking them a decade ago.

According to the report, 1,232 people were killed in officer-involved shootings, with Black people disproportionately accounting for 26% of deaths, despite only making up 14% of the population.

“It’s an alchemy,” said Roberts acknowledging the intensity of the subject. [Dance] can be for entertainment, but I can also take the hard pieces of life and turn them into beauty. It’s like taking poison and turning it into medicine.”

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958. It has long used movement to express the joys and pains of the human experience. Now, in its latest national tour, the modern dance company is interpreting one of the most difficult issues facing society today – gun violence. Here’s reporter Brandon Gates.

BRANDON GATES, BYLINE: It begins with one dancer lying motionless on stage as a piano plays a jarring chord.

JAMAR ROBERTS: That image is the victim.

GATES: That’s choreographer Jamar Roberts. He spoke to me remotely while on tour with this piece about gun violence. He wanted his dance to ask a dreamlike question about the people who have died.

ROBERTS: What if they woke up in a sort of limbo space where the same thing that happened to them had happened to others? And what would that interaction be like?

GATES: Five performers move in, meticulously approaching the victim. The background shows withered funeral flowers that are turned upside down, almost descending onto the dancers. Their movements fall out of sync as the music becomes more distorted. Arms weaving, feet kicking, it conveys the chaos that ensues when a loved one dies. Roberts says this dance is called Ode. It’s meant as a poem. Last year, 1,200 people in the U.S. died in officer-involved shootings, according to the organization Mapping Police Violence. Black people accounted for a disproportionate quarter of those deaths. So how does a dancer respond?

ROBERTS: It just haunted me for many, many, many nights.

GATES: Roberts’ choreography is heavy. It does not shy away from death and what he imagines purgatory in the afterlife looks like. Gun violence is not explicit in this dance, but you can hear a kind of violence during the piano piece that accompanies it. The composer is Don Pullen.

ROBERTS: It felt like just the right sentiment, you know, just the right thing that I wanted to say in a really beautiful way. But it doesn’t really shy away from the tragedy and the hardness of the issue. And I kind of sat with that music for a really long time.

GATES: And while Jamar Roberts did not initially know he would create a piece about gun violence, he did know he needed dance to cope with it.

ROBERTS: You know, it’s like taking poison and turning it into medicine.

GATES: The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is touring the U.S. through the spring, bringing dance and spiritual medicine.

For NPR News, I’m Brandon Gates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Written by: NPR

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