Perspectives

July 17, 2020

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, my mother and I frequently drove into the city of Detroit to attend an event or performance at one of the many beautiful cultural institutions. Scattered throughout the downtown area, theaters and art galleries stand out against the backdrop of urban decay. She always found the perfect artistic experience to highlight something I was studying in school, or to show me the endless possibilities of creative expression. She required that we dress up, which often meant that we had to go shopping in preparation for our outing; so many fun memories. Since it was usually just the two of us, she taught me all the best places in the city to park, and how to look “tough” when we walked down the street to our destination. I remember wondering why we needed to look tough, not yet having lost the trust of humanity that accompanies childhood innocence.

It was during these excursions that I developed a love for the city. I love the way it smells. I love the way the buildings remind me of a time that I can only read about in history books or stories. I love how it embraces its gritty reputation without apology. I love how the neighborhoods reflect the immigration of a variety of cultures who have shared their traditions and celebrations that we honor and enjoy. I love that coexisting amid the urban decay there are these inspirational pockets of hope – all having one thing in common: they pull people in from the suburbs. Even if just for the day, these centers of humanity pull in those whose families fled generations ago for what they thought would be a better life. A safer life, some would argue.

During one particular outing to Detroit, my mother shared her excitement that we were going to see a dance company. It was too early in the season for The Nutcracker; I wondered with anticipation who we would see. I wish I could recall, with certainty, which theater we visited that day – they are all such pillars of beauty standing as beacons – pockets of hope – throughout the city.

When the curtain opened and the dancers appeared everything else faded away. If you’ve ever read a book more than once or have seen the same movie or performance multiple times, then perhaps you’ve had that experience of seeing the story or the characters differently – either because you’ve changed or you’ve had an experience that has provided a new perspective through which you now see. Up to this point I had seen many ballet productions; I could anticipate an arabesque or predict the pattern in a pas de deux. I had never seen a dance performance as powerful as this. I had nothing to which it could compare. I was mesmerized. It was a ballet that simultaneously adhered to the rules and broke the rules. The performance stepped outside of the box just enough to call attention to the unique, modern way of telling a story through movement.

At moments the dancers floated across the stage like one might expect while watching Swan Lake; however, the most captivating sequences were the ones when the dancers used their bodies to create movements that told the story of a struggle – one with historical context and current-day relevance. Every muscle taut, exposed legs, bare torsos, and bodies that broke the typical mold that one might expect from a professional ballet company. Strong arms and legs carried the burden of the story of injustice and heartbreak. Strong arms and legs moved with determination toward freedom and equality.

This moment, my humanities moment – experiencing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, forever changed the way I view an artistic production. My new expectation was that a creative director would have the courage enough to take a risk, break the mold, and show a conscious effort to create something that makes the audience stop and consider another perspective.

It always fascinated me that we travelled into the city to have our ideas challenged, to have our curiosity piqued, and to have our emotions stirred. Reflecting back on these experiences, I am grateful for my mother who created opportunities to have my preconceptions challenged and my ideas transformed.