Lessons learned from a broad canvas

Photo by JP Yim Sekou Heru, left, and “Big John” Douglas are among the Gleason’s trainers and boxers featured in the Peggy Choy Dance Company’s “Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali.”

Photo by JP Yim
Sekou Heru, left, and “Big John” Douglas are among the Gleason’s trainers and boxers featured in the Peggy Choy Dance Company’s “Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali.”

Ail’s impact documented, in dance and on film

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  In the eyes of many sports fans, political activists and religious observers, the arc of history long ago issued the verdict that Muhammad Ali was standing on firm moral ground when he refused to serve in Vietnam. But those who weren’t living witnesses to that era might not recall, or fully appreciate, that being true to his convictions had dire consequences. The conscientious objector — a convert to Islam whose name change from Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to Muhammad Ali was reason enough for many former fans to vilify him — was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years, at the absolute height of his physical prowess.

Ali staged a comeback, of course, and more than one — and today, decades after his last fight, that “I must be the greatest” declaration (first uttered following a 1964 upset victory over Sonny Liston) resonates.

Two upcoming projects are taking a look at the Ali legacy, with a specific focus on his political and religious awakening.

“The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” screening as part of April 17-28’s Tribeca Film Festival, is already generating buzz for its detailed look at how “brash boxer Cassius Clay burst into the American consciousness in the early 1960s, just ahead of the Civil Rights movement.” The documentary concentrates on how Ali’s religious awakening, and subsequent spiritual enlightenment, put him on a collision course with the U.S. government. “A perfect storm of race, religion and politics that shaped one of the most recognizable figures in sports history” is how the filmmakers sum up their subject.

Just as aware of Ali’s legacy — but particularly concerned with his relevance to a current generation who also came of age during wartime — the Peggy Choy Dance Company’s “THE GREATEST! Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali” is a fusion of music, hip-hop and contemporary dance, video, martial arts and boxing that focuses on Ali’s life-long fight to inspire justice. Danced vignettes will recall key moments in Ali’s life, including the lynching of Emmett Till, meeting Malcolm X and recapturing the crown in Kinshasha, Zaire.

Although largely silenced in recent years by the effects of Parkinson’s, Choy says that “Ali’s message, that we heard in the 60s, is absolutely relevant. This generation, and the next generation, really needs to have inspiration and direction — and Ali’s vision of what is ‘the greatest’ in everyone is something I wanted to bring to the public.”

A collaborative effort between Choy and the Brooklyn anchor location of Gleason’s Gym, “THE GREATEST!” features members of Choy’s dance company as well as Gleason’s-based trainers and boxers — including 1996 Guyana Olympic team competitor John Douglas, three-time world kickboxing champion and USKBA world featherweight champion Devon Cormack and 2012 Golden Gloves champ Heather Hardy (who, last week, added to her undefeated professional record, with a fifth win).

“My dancers and performers span in age from 18 to 69,” says Choy, who notes that “there are several generations coming together, for whom Ali represents different things. The younger ones, not all of them know about Ali’s life [in the 60s], but they know that their parents are fans.”

Choy, who has been combining elements of martial arts and boxing into her choreography for over a decade, calls Afro-Asian fusion “a very important part my work, because the Asian and African cultures, and populations, have been separated. It’s a very divisive history in America, but I believe there are common elements there which can create an incredibly deep connection [between generations and ethnicities]. Ali has said that his final punch in the Zaire fight was an Asian martial arts punch, the KO that brought Foreman to the floor.  In the breaking, b-boy and b-girl traditions, there are martial arts moves. But you also have moves that are deeply rooted in the memory of African American culture, which bleeds and blends over and back into Asian culture. It’s there, and the [mutual] appreciation is there.”

Choy’s other paramount goal in this upcoming performance is to instill in young fans what she calls the greatest takeaway from Ali’s work, both in and out of the ring. “I want to emphasize this idea reflected in boxing,” she says, “which is an idea that’s key to human life.  The most precious thing is not the victory of youth. It’s the victory of the old champion who keeps getting up. Aging is a process everyone is going to go through. To do it with dignity and respect for those around you is a champion’s message that has a lot of depth.”

DANCE
THE GREATEST! HIP DANCE HOMAGE TO MUHAMMAD ALI
Presented by Gleason’s Gym
Directed and choreographed by Peggy Choy
Music by Graham Haynes
Dancers: Peggy Choy, Sekou Heru, Ze Motion, Kwikstep, Martin Rios, Kid Glyde, Spydey, Lacouir Yancey, Edgar Eguia
Boxers: John Douglas, Panama, Devon Cormack, Dillon Carew, Heather Hardy, Paul Anthony, Kevin Barker, Danielle Lacy, Khemar Harewood

Sat., April 13 & Sun., April 14, at 8pm
At Gleason’s Gym (77 Front St., DUMBO, Brooklyn)
Tickets: $15, standing ($35 limited seating, $45 VIP ringside)
Purchase in cash at the door or, for reservations, email thegreatestali5@gmail.com
Visit peggychoydance.com and gleasonsgym.net

Photo courtesy of Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images Ali (front row, fourth from right) prays at the Hussein Mosque in Cairo in June 1964, four months after changing his name from Cassius Clay and announcing he is a member of the Nation of Islam (a scene from the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival documentary, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”).

Photo courtesy of Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Ali (front row, fourth from right) prays at the Hussein Mosque in Cairo in June 1964, four months after changing his name from Cassius Clay and announcing he is a member of the Nation of Islam (a scene from the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival documentary, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”).

FILM
THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI
Directed by Bill Siegel
Part of the Tribeca Film Festival
Fri., April 26, 5:30pm & Sat., April 27, 9pm
For tickets and venue info: Call 646-502-5296 or
visit tribecafilm.com/festival

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