"[Gaga Stigmata has] very modern, edgy photography to free flowing, urban narratives without censure to analytical essays, et cetera—like Gaga, imagination without ... limits. And the beauty is that anyone can submit work to the site, so artists and writers from all over the [world] have joined this experiment." -The Declaration.org

"Since March 2010, [Gaga Stigmata] has churned out the most intense ongoing critical conversation on [Lady Gaga]."
-Yale's The American Scholar

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011: Gagalations

By Meghan Blalock

When Alvin Ailey’s Revelations debuted in 1960, it swiftly became one of the most widely known pieces of modern dance. The original piece, inspired by what Ailey called “blood memories” from his childhood in Texas, was more than an hour long, choreographed to both traditional and modern spirituals so as to depict the spiritual journey from slavery to freedom through faith. The styles of dance in Revelations are eclectic, ranging from more classical ballet postures (deep plies, arabesques, Chaînés, and pirouettes), to the innovative use of back-lit silhouettes, boxed elbows, and bladed hands that would become Ailey’s signatures. Eventually whittled down to just around thirty minutes, the piece has inspired dancers and creators for more than fifty years – including Lady Gaga’s most recent foray into pop culture, “Born This Way.”

From her claims that the song came to her through “immaculate conception” to her innumerable references to the song as “bad kids going to church in a big way,” Gaga hasn’t exactly tried to conceal the fact that she thinks “Born This Way” (and her subsequent album, to be released in May) is spiritual in nature; even the song’s lyrics refer to “capital H-i-m” and backing vocals murmur “church” over and over again. Gaga has presented “Born This Way” as the modern-day spiritual meant to free the tormented from their binds; namely, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, women, and those among us who are “beige,” just to name a few. Here, I will argue that with her Grammy performance, Gaga has reaffirmed this intention by directly paying homage to Revelations.

The final version of Revelations, and the one still performed today, is comprised of three movements. The first, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” is an homage to traditional slave spirituals. It depicts the incredible sorrow of slave life: dancers stick together in close formations and look to the sky, reaching with open hands and using their entire bodies to stretch upward, signifying that they are asking God and their faith for strength and guidance. The entire movement is minimally lit, in yellow or earth tones. The second movement, “Take Me To The Water,” is a more joyous piece that depicts the dancers’ pilgrimage to a river where they will baptize and purify themselves. This movement symbolizes their first taste of freedom from the sorrow and pain of their enslaved existences. The last movement, “Move, Members, Move!”, is a celebration of life after the dancers have achieved freedom, set to modern-day spirituals like “Rock-a My Soul.” It is also the movement from which Lady Gaga and her co-creators took the most (though not the exclusive) inspiration for her Grammy performance.

“Move, Members, Move!” opens with a trio of male dancers before a single female dancer takes the stage. Wearing a yellow dress and hat, and carrying a fan, she begins dancing in front of a red backdrop with – dare I say it – an egg-shaped halo of light to her right. Soon she is joined by other women in the same dresses, donning the same hats, and they dance in unison. The choreography here is nothing short of triumphant, with stomping feet, swinging arms, and levels that mirror the rises and falls of the music. The fact that Gaga was inspired by these visuals is fairly obvious.

Gaga’s latex top and skirt mimics the long dresses worn by the women in Revelations. Her dancers emerge in similar outfits, suggesting that she sees them as her equals, as her fellow freed slaves. The jacket she wears during part of her performance is similar to the button-front dresses worn in some stagings of Ailey’s ballet. The yellow hat is nearly identical to the one worn by the freed slave women in Revelations. The modernization of the costumes – the use of latex, minimalist at that – reflects Gaga’s own aesthetic and emphasizes that this performance is not Revelations – it’s Revelations for the 21st  century.

The visuals – the costuming, staging, and lighting – are not the only aspects of Gaga’s “Born This Way” performance that directly reference Ailey’s ballet. The choreography is strongly reminiscent of Revelations’ trademark movements, especially those found in “Pilgrim of Sorrow.”


The formation of Ailey’s dancers here – huddled closely together, with one central figure in the front – clearly influence the ending formation of Gaga’s “Born This Way” performance. The motions of her and her dancers’ bodies – all moving together in unison – are taken directly from Ailey’s  choreography. The dancers replicate Ailey’s classic open-palmed, spread-finger reach to the sky (shown below), done in such low lighting that the performers’ faces aren’t even visible. While Ailey’s dancers go into deep plies and lean their torsos and open hands toward the ground, Gaga and her dancers go into deep plies and lean their torsos while grasping on to each other.

They then come back up and reach for the sky again, finishing the performance in the classic Ailey pose, but with a twist – instead of spead-finger palms reaching toward the sky, they reach with monster paws, at which point the lights are finally brought up and their faces made visible.

While the choreography during the group formation is a clear homage to “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” it seems that much of the choreography leading up to the performance’s conclusion is taken from the third section of Revelations, “Move, Members, Move!”

As Gaga emerges from the vessel and later during the synchronized choreography that begins the chorus of the song (beginning with “I’m beautiful in my way”), much of BTW’s choregoraphy reflects the ballet technique, wide second-position plies, and reverent stomping that characterizes the third section of Revelations. Right before Gaga breaks into her “rap” portion of the song, during which she encourages us to be “queens,” whether we are “broke or evergreen,” all the dancers form a single file behind her, which the dancers in Revelations do as well, to do eight counts of tendues, traditional ballet warmups. After her break at the organ (which, by the way, was a tangent into Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as well as an homage to a fortune teller head who lives inside a crystal ball at the Disney Haunted Mansion), Gaga heads back down to the stage to join her dancers, who promptly start removing their clothing – their slave garb, if you will – as she puts her jacket back on. While Ailey’s dancers remain clothed, and in fact get progressively more so from the beginning of the ballet to the end, it’s no mystery by this point that Gaga is not only paying homage to Revelations – she’s turning it on its head.

Ailey’s dancers progress from barely clothed in skin-hugging leotards to wearing full church regalia with hats, flowing dresses, and fans; Gaga’s dancers progress from full latex dresses to nothing but nude-colored underwear. Ailey’s sections progress from slavery to freedom achieved through spirituality; Gaga’s choreography suggests a regression from the third section back to the first. In order to understand why Gaga and her creative director, Laurieann Gibson, chose to do this, we should look at the meanings of the performances in the contexts of their debuts.

Revelations debuted in January 1960, at the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Eight years before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. was still actively speaking, and sit-ins were happening regularly. It was still four years before the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, which would ban discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations, but the sense of imminent change was in the air. It was inescapable, one and the same with the zeitgeist. Ailey was no doubt inspired by this feeling, and elements of the ballet – including its build from sorrow to triumph – illustrate that he was likely in the throes of profound hopefulness for racial equality. Also, it’s important to note that Revelations debuted at the 92Y in New York City, undoubtedly in front of a liberal audience who shared this hopefulness.

“Born This Way” premiered in February 2011, just a couple months after Congress’ official repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law banning homosexuals from being open in the military, and one of the most blatant examples of government-supported discrimination still on the books. Gaga’s performance came after a seemingly never-ending deluge of headlines reporting teen suicides over bullying on account of their homosexuality. And while Gaga likely sees that we are definitely in the midst of a huge movement to abolish discrimination against people based on gender issues – women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, queers – perhaps she also sees that we have a long way to go. And unlike Ailey, she and the Haus were not performing in front of a small group who (likely) share their beliefs; they were performing on national television, most certainly in front of people who do not share the beliefs espoused in “Born This Way.” So while her performance progresses in reverse order from Ailey’s, it is not so much a statement of regression from freedom to slavery as it is a way to flip Ailey’s purpose on its head: Ailey was expressing his hopefulness about achieving racial equality to a room of sympathetic viewers, while Gaga actually aims to create a new race that is entirely free of discrimination. She does so by visually creating a new species of people with protruding facial and shoulder bones. Ailey aimed at racial equality and the triumph it would bring; Gaga aims at a race of equality and the togetherness it will create. This is her revelation.

“Born This Way,” both the song and the debut performance at the Grammys, is certainly a joyful hymn: the song concludes as a Church-like spiritual, with Gaga’s voice layered on top of itself, and clapping to mimic a choir. But Gaga’s homage to Revelations (established by BTW’s choreography, costuming, and lighting) also reverses certain elements of Ailey’s ballet, and therefore functions as a challenge to monsters to band together, establish a nondiscriminant race, and show the rest of the world that being yourself is the true path to spiritual freedom – so the entire world can join the choir.

Author Bio:
Meghan Blalock is a writer living in New York City. She writes for Gotham magazine, and has also written pieces for the local music blog Sound System NYC, The Rumpus, Southern Living, Gaga Stigmata, Woman's Day, and other publications. Her poetry has also been published in amphibi.us. Her work is viewable here and here.

Click here to follow Gaga Stigmata on Twitter.
Click here to "like" Gaga Stigmata on Facebook.


  1. Very nice review and good job introducing Ailey to people who don't really know his work. I don't know that Laurieann Gibson had this particular Ailey ballet in mind when she choreographed "Born This Way".

    You see a lot of Ailey vocabulary in her choreography for Gaga because she got her professional training in The Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. I've never known a dancer/choreographer that trained under Ailey that doesn't retain some of those signature movements because they are simply so inspiring and imbued with phenomenal heart and spirit.

    In terms of choreography of Born This Way, the movement is foreshadowed in "Teeth", and in the first version of "Alejandro" choreographed for Monster Ball 1.0 which, again, was almost a pure dance/music piece, and more ballet than modern; it's a beautiful piece to watch.

    Alejandro has morphed over time into a more Fosse-ish work but there's still a bit of Ailey there. I remember watching the Alejandro video and being quite certain that wherever he was, Bob Fosse was shaking his head and saying, "Damn, why didn't *I* think of that?"

  2. Wow this was a very well written post. It's cool to see what influences her and how she does her own interpretation on it.

    Awesome job and an awesome blog!

  3. I'm constantly blown away by Gaga Stigmata's amazing submissions.

    This piece was incredibly helpful, thank you! I had absolutely no context for watching the choreography for BTW, and having no dance training or knowledge made it really difficult to appreciate the performance.

  4. Wow Meghan, thanks so much for this. When I saw this performance live I instantly saw the Ailey ties but it is nice to have it laid out here in such an intelligent and somewhat obvious way.

    I'm already getting excited about seeing Ailey in a couple of weeks and this only heightens my excitement.

  5. To be honest I find Gaga's appropriation of a landmark piece exploring the remnants of bondage and decolonization as a pop political statement for gay rights and gender equality very unsettling.

    Similar to blackface minstrel shows of the past, her use of black culture obstructs and obscures the original meaning of what she's referencing. Ailey himself called Revelations a "blood memory," something close to him and his childhood sitting in churches in Texas. Sure Gaga introduces a revolutionary to a new audience, but I feel it's a distortion of the original meaning.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.