WILLIAMSTOWN -- To a soundtrack of soulful, soaring spirituals, arms outstretched like wings and heavenly pleas evoke both yearning and despair. A parasol shades frothy white dresses as a cloth river flows across the stage, while sun-yellow dresses herald joyful proclamation.
On Tuesday, Alvin Ailey's seminal 1960 work, "Revelations," will anchor an Ailey II dance company performance at the ‘62 Center in Williamstown.
"This coming season's theme is looking at art that is considered classic," said Sandra Burton, who for the past 30 years has led the Williams College Dance Department.
" ‘Revelations' really emerged as one of the great pieces of choreography from the last century," she explained. "It struck a deep chord, not only with African-Americans but with all Americans. It is a perpetual affirmation of the human spirit."
Burton will interview artistic director emerita Sylvia Waters during the company's visit, which includes a master class. "She's one of those former Ailey dancers who thrilled us," Burton recalled. "She is really invested in what dance brings to education."
While Jacob's Pillow attracts world class dancers each summer, "having artists of this caliber in residence when students are around is extremely important," she said. "Our community and our students really love dance."
Born in 1931, Ailey built on the work of African-American pioneers Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Zora Neale Hurston, she explained. "He was inspired by these women and by his experience as an African-American, the things he witnessed and experienced historically."
Raised in Texas, Ailey moved to California as a teen and studied with Lester Horton, one of the few 1950s dance teachers who educated anyone seeking training at his integrated school; he subsequently joined Horton's company.
When his mentor died, Ailey assumed the helm, continuing Horton's tradition after moving to New York and founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1958, Burton said. Ailey choreographed some 80 ballets before passing away in 1989.
Ailey II began in 1974 as a second company focused on outreach in the community, said Artistic Director Troy Powell, who started Ailey School classes at age 9, personally selected for a full scholarship by Alvin Ailey.
He joined Ailey II in 1988, and the first company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, in 1991, dancing and traveling around the world for some 10 years.
Eighty-five percent of first company members started off in the second company, he said.
In 2006, then-artistic director Sylvia Waters began grooming Powell to take over the company she had led since its inception. Last year, Powell, age 44, became only the second artistic director in Ailey II's 40 year history.
"It has always been a dream of mine to give back to the younger generation what I learned from Mr. Ailey," he said.
In recent years, the company has added Europe to its touring schedule, which includes venues like Jacob's Pillow and Harlem's Apollo Theater.
"It definitely elevated the dancers to another level of artistry," Powell said. "As a younger director, my mission is to keep the company young and fresh and to grow from there."
The six men and six women in Ailey II perform works by emerging and established choreographers, including classics like Ailey's "Revelations."
Anybody, regardless of age, color, beliefs or economic status can relate to "Revelations," Powell explained.
"What keeps it alive is the history and story," he said. "What makes it so beautiful is the audience connection."
"Revelations" is based on "blood memories" of Ailey's Texas childhood, Powell said, "going through trials and tribulations, blues, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, the Depression, poverty. And the church being a celebration of all of those things."
Putting that on stage was unheard of during the racism and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, he noted.
At 15, Powell learned sections of "Revelations" from Ailey. "He encouraged us to be individuals and express our humanity in the most honest way possible."
"Ailey was all about making dance accessible. To those who couldn't afford it, he gave us scholarships and exposed us to a whole different world."
Tuesday's diverse program will include Ailey's "Streams," an abstract work with different textures, moods and currents; and "Virtues" by Amy Hall Garner with its upbeat, jazzy feel.
While he no longer performs, Powell immerses himself in the work.
"I'm watching every night and a lot of these works I've danced, so I still see myself in these dancers," Powell said. "I miss it a lot."
If you go ...
What: Ailey II dance company
When: Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Where: '62 Center MainStage, Main Street, Williamstown
Admission: $10 adults, $3 students
Information: (413) 597-2425 62center.williams.edu
What: Ailey II Artistic Director Emerita Sylvia Waters in conversation with director of dance Sandra L. Burton
When: Monday at 7 p.m.
Where: '62 Center Studio, Free
What: Post-performance Q&A
When: Tuesday at 10 p.m.
Where: '62 Center MainStage
Admission: Free with ticket