Three Black Kings was the last dance and music collaboration between choreographer Alvin Ailey and composer/musician Duke Ellington. The work was revived for the present 2011 season, but it has a rich dramatic history both on and off the stage. Originally intended for the Dance Theatre of Harlem the music was begun in 1972. Somehow the collaboration never materialized, and by 1974 it was slated for the repertoire of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Ellington became gravely ill and placed the responsibility of completing his last composition in the hands of his son Mercer. In fact he gave notes on the music to Mercer from his hospital bed. Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974.
The 1976 New York Ailey season was dedicated to the collaborative works of Ailey and Ellington. Three Black Kings premiered with a cast that included Elbert Watson as King Balthazar, Clive Thompson as King Solomon and Dudley Williams as Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King was a close friend of Ellington and his widow Coretta Scott King attended the première.
Thompson joined the Ailey Company in 1965 and by the 1970’s was one of the leading male dancers. His solid technique and partnering were coupled with his uncompromising good looks and physique. Ailey had choreographed many works on him including Myth, Hidden Rites and the lyric duet The Lark Ascending.
Williams joined the Ailey Company in 1964 and immediately distinguished himself with clean line and his dramatic and lyric qualities. A Song For You and the I Wanna Be Ready solo from Revelations became signature works for Williams and set the standard for these roles.
Elbert Watson had joined the company in 1974 at age 22. Three Black Kings was the first role created by Ailey for Watson. A fresh transplant from his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia he was the “newbie” in this triumvirate.
The opening movement depicts King Balthazar one of the three kings who follow the stars in search of a newborn king. He is preparing his caravan for travel across the desert. The choreography has majesty about it as Balathzar directs his entourage consisting of five male dancers.
The music in this section is an ostinato, a phrase of music that is repeated. The repetitive musical pattern evokes an ethnic feeling, but goes not mimicking traditional African music and remains jazz. The section has a distinct crescendo allowing the Balthazar figure and cast to build the choreographic excitement until it restores the majestic feeling of the opening. The section concludes when Balthazar is crowned and regally continues his journey with his entourage.
The second movement is the most lush of the three movements. It evokes the feeling of King Solomon in a harem. It is written that Solomon had six hundred wives and four hundred concubines. The all female cast surrounds as if paying homage to their king and master. The centerpiece of the section is a duet with Thompson using both his upper and low body as support or a base.
There is sensuality in this section. An intensity evoked by the strong and physical partnering. Throughout the duet the Solomon figure remains regal and in control.
Solomon was Hebrew, so why would he been the second king in the work? There is a deputed interpretation of Song of Solomon chapter 1 verses 5 and 6 that implies Solomon had tan skin. The larger implication is the being in the lineage of Jesus Christ that would make Jesus a black man.
The last section choreographically is the most subtle yet symbolic, both in the actual movement and in the imagery it suggests. The blues/ gospel feel of the music is upbeat and almost happy. The subtle initial movement is a simple shifting of weight performed by male and female dancers, who are portraying Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King.
As the ever-increasing ensemble of male and female dancers (the largest use of the ensemble in the work) enter they echo variations of the original movement. Ailey artfully brings the ensemble onstage from both sides upstage of the central figures. All for the dancers, with the exception of the Martin Luther King figure, who is wearing a white long sleeve shirt and black pants, are in shades of grey and deep purple creating a monochromatic palette.
The movement and choreographic pattern suggests a processional and stir images of a New Orléans funeral procession. Ailey accomplishes this without overtly turning the section into a dirge. The male dancers carry Martin Luther King with his leg together and arms extended resembling a cross, then he is lowered headfirst. The immediate imagery suggests the crucifixion of Simon Peter.
The significance of the inverted cross is upon being sentenced to death by the Romans Simon Peter requested being crucified upside down because he did not feel himself worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus Christ. In the context of Three Black Kings it implies that King was also a humble martyr. The work ends with the Martin Luther King figure being lifted with his arm rising upward he is now on the mountaintop.
In Photo 1) Dudley Williams, Elbert Watson, Clive Thompson* 2) Carl Paris, Elbert Watson (in foreground) and company* 3) Clive Thompson and company 4) Clive Thompson and Tina Yuan* 5) Dudley Williams and Company* 6) Glenn Allen Sims and Company
Photos by 1) Jack Mitchell 2) Jack Vartoogian 3) Ron Reagan 4) Randy Masser 5) Johan Elbers 6) Paul Kolnik
Camera and Editing by Ronald J. Lewis
*Courtesy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation Archives
Special Thanks to Emily Hawkins – Public Relations Manager, Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation