The words of Martin Luther King Jr. are as relevant today as they were when he spoke them, said Hope Boykin, a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
“If you heard it on the radio now, you would think it was a Facebook Live,” said Boykin, who spent “six lovely years” in Philadelphia, dancing with Philadanco before joining Alvin Ailey in 2000. “Listen to his March on Detroit speech. It was the first time he spoke about having a dream.”
Ailey will be dancing her r-Evolution, Dream, inspired by King’s speeches and sermons, when the company comes to the Merriam Theater this weekend. It is set to music she commissioned from Ali Jackson from Jazz at Lincoln Center, with historic and original texts read by Philadelphia native Leslie Odom, who won a Tony Award for his role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
“The program represents what the company is doing now, because I think we’re really cognizant that Hope’s new work is on the program,” said Ailey artistic director Robert Battle, of r-Evolution, which premiered in November in New York, “but it dovetails beautifully into Black History Month.”
It seems even more significant to Black History Month, he noted, when paired with Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America, about the impact of the prison system on African American families.
The Merriam performances also include Exodus, by Philadelphia hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris, inspired by recent shootings, the relationship between police and citizens, and exodus from ignorance and conformity.
Battle also addressed hope in his piece Awakenings. “I’m surrounded by people who love Alvin, the man. I sit at the last desk he had, in my office. I’m surrounded by his ballets and his friends. The ballet is about leadership, rite of passage, it represents light, that light and dark place. Sliver of light, sliver of hope."
Awakenings was also inspired by the first time Battle saw Revelations, when he was a new dance students attending middle school in Miami and felt transformed the moment the curtain went up.
Revelations, which Ailey created in 1958, is still danced at nearly every performance.
“Even as the country was really going through another difficult moment,” Battle said, “[Ailey] had the audacity to give us a message of hope. Whatever your religion, background, how you love, whatever your paycheck, it cuts through to what matters.”
As for Boykin’s work, “The name of it is [pronounced] ‘Revolution Dream.’ A lot of people tell me it’s Our Evolution. I would like to concentrate more on the ‘evolution.’ We need to evolve what’s within us, what we need to fight for, before we can inflict our opinions on other people.”
Boykin grew up learning about King and civil rights -- “My mom made sure of it.” But it was a visit to the Civil & Human Rights Center with Battle in Atlanta that put things in a different light.
She was moved by footage of King’s casket moving through streets overlaid by his Drum Major Instinct sermon. It clicked with Boykin “how we all want to lead the parade, we all want to be the head of something, but you can only lead if you’re in service.
“I was hearing these messages again but in a different ear because I’m an adult and have gone through different things,” she said. “I was motivated to move to Dr. King’s voice. I ended up downloading a lot of things, going online, reading things.
What she discovered was not just King the minister and civil rights leader, but also that he was a great scholar, incorporating Shakespeare or poetry into his teachings.
“It was magnificent of him,” Boykin said of King, “that he could incorporate old and timely messages.”
So for about four months, Boykin began creating her third work for the company without any promises that it would be performed. When she finally proposed the idea, Battle loved it, and the elements began to come together.
She had asked Jackson, a friend, to create the score even before the project was greenlighted. She had known Odom since his student days at Philadanco and Freedom Theatre and encouraged his career. For lighting, she turned to longtime family friend Al Crawford.
Everyone was a friend.
“Just imagine being supported from the artistic director, the music, the lighting, the dancers in studio. Support equals success. I feel like I’ve done my best work here.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Merriam Theater, 205 S. Broad St., $80-$130, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org