Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and won international fame as both a dancer and choreographer.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Alvin Ailey shaped modern dance into a popular art form. In 1969, he founded the American Dance Center, a dance school that teaches a variety of techniques. Five years later he founded the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, a junior dance company. But mainly through the auspices of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater established in 1959, Ailey greatly impacted the dance world. Known for its "vibrant artistry and repertory, and for Ailey's motivating humanist vision," his company drew enthusiastic responses from audiences, while touring the world.
The 30-member company has executed more than 150 pieces in some 67 countries. Ailey's modern dance company has presented classic pieces by early dance pioneers, including the dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, whose Afro-Caribbean-based works had a lasting impact on Ailey. In addition, his company has performed many works by younger black choreographers such as Bill T. Jones, Ulysses Dove, Judith Jamison, and others.
Ailey also produced his own celebrated dance pieces, dealing with his memories of church services and forbidden dance halls in the all-black neighborhood of the Texas town where he spent his early years. His energetic, diverting dances also used blues, jazz, Latin, and classical music. About Ailey's works John Gruen wrote in The Private World of Ballet, "His work is marked by the free use of disparate elements of the dance vocabulary. At its best, the Ailey group generates an uncommon exhilaration, achieved by a tumultuous and almost tactile rhythmic pulse. Ailey's own best works are charged with a dazzling and uninhibited movement and life. The exuberance and poignancy of the black experience are well served in Ailey's splendid [dance pieces] Revelations, Blues Suite, and Cry."
In addition, Ailey staged dance productions, operas, ballets, and had works performed on television. He received honorary degrees in fine arts from colleges and universities and prizes for his choreography, including a Dance magazine award in 1975; the Springarn Medal, given to him by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1979; and the Capezio Award that same year. In 1988 he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors prize.
Alvin Ailey, Jr. was born into a large extended family on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas, a small town not far from Waco. Alvin Sr., a laborer, left his son's mother, Lula Elizabeth, when Alvin Jr. was less than one-year-old. While the United States was in the midst of the economic Great Depression, jobs were particularly scarce for black men and Alvin Sr. struggled to make ends meet. Six years later, Alvin Jr. was sent to his mother. At the age of six, Alvin Jr. moved with his mother to Navasota, Texas, where he recalled in an interview in the New York Daily News Magazine, "There was the white school up on the hill, and the black Baptist church, and the segregated theaters and neighborhoods. Like most of my generation, I grew up feeling like an outsider, like someone who didn't matter."
In 1942, when Ailey was 12, he and his mother relocated to Los Angeles, where his mother worked in an aircraft factory. As a teenager Ailey showed an interest in athletics, joining his high school gymnastics team and playing football. An admirer of pioneering dancers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Ailey took tap dancing lessons at the home of a neighbor. But his interest in dance was really stimulated when a high school friend took him to visit the Hollywood modern dance school run by Lester Horton, whose company was the first racially integrated one in America. Unsure of what opportunities would be available for him as a dancer, however, he left Horton's school after one month.
After graduating from high school in 1948, Ailey contemplated becoming a teacher. He entered the University of California in Los Angeles and began studying the romance languages. When Horton offered him a scholarship in 1949, Ailey went back to the dance school but left again after one year, this time to attend San Francisco State College.
For a time Ailey danced in a San Francisco nightclub, then he returned to the Horton school to finish his training. By 1953, when Horton took the company east for a New York City debut performance, Ailey was with him. When Horton died of a heart attack, the young Ailey took charge as the company's artistic director, choreographing two pieces in Horton's style to be presented at the Jacob's Pillow festival. After the works received poor reviews from the festival manager, the troupe broke up.
Despite the setback, Ailey's career stayed on track. A Broadway producer invited him to dance in House of Flowers, a musical adaptation of Truman Capote's book. While a member of the cast, Ailey spent the next five months broadening his dance knowledge by taking classes at the Martha Graham school with Doris Humphrey, and with Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm. He also studied ballet with Karel Shook, cofounder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and acting with legendary acting instructor Stella Adler. From the mid-1950s through the early 1960s, Ailey appeared in theatrical and musical productions on and off-Broadway, among them The Carefree Tree; Sing, Man, Sing; Jamaica; and Call Me By My Rightful Name. He also played a major theatrical part in the play, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright.
In the spring of 1958, Ailey and another dancer with an interest in choreographing recruited 35 dancers to perform several concerts at the 92nd Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association (YM-YWHA) in New York City, a place where modern dances and new choreographers were seen. Ailey's first major piece was inspired by blues music. Viewers saw the debut performance of Blues Suite, set in a Southern "bawdyhouse." Observed Julinda Lewis-Ferguson in her book, Alvin Ailey, Jr.: A Life in Dance, "The characters interact with anger, tenderness, love, and a whole range of familiar and recognizable emotions." The performance drew praise, with Jack Anderson of the New York Times calling Blues Suite"one of Mr. Ailey's best pieces." Ailey scheduled a second concert at the Y, to present his own works, and then a third, which featured his most famous piece, Revelations. Accompanied by the elegant jazz music of Duke Ellington, Revelation's audience is deftly pulled into African-American religious life. Julinda Lewis-Ferguson described the piece in her book: "Revelations begins with the dancers clustered together in a group, in the center of the stage, arms stretched over their heads. … They appear to be bathed in a golden blessing from heaven. … The highly energetic final section of the work starts off with three men running, sometimes on their knees, trying to hide from their sins or from the punishment for their sins. … The finale, "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," is both a spiritually powerful conclusion to the suite and a purely physical release of emotion." In the New York Post Clive Barnes described Revelations as "powerful and eloquent" and a "timeless tribute to humanity, faith, and survival."
Ailey established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, composed of a troupe of eight black dancers, in 1959. One year after formation, Alvin Ailey's dance theater became the resident dance company at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts at the 51st Street and Eighth Avenue Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in New York City. In 1969, they moved to Brooklyn, New York, as the resident dance company of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an arts center with three theaters. But they were unable to create the Lincoln Center they had hoped for in that borough and moved back to midtown Manhattan in 1971.
By the mid-1960s Ailey, who struggled with his weight, gradually phased out his dancing and replaced it with choreographing. He also oversaw administrative details as the director of his ambitious dance company. By 1968, the company had received funding from private and public organizations but still had financial problems, even as its reputation spread and it brought modern dance to audiences around the world. Ailey also had the leading African-American soloist of modern dance, Judith Jamison, and having been using Asian and white dancers since the mid-1960s, Ailey had fully integrated the company. He had organized his dance school in 1969, and by 1974, he had a repertory ensemble too.
In the early 1960s the company performed in Southeast Asia and Australia as part of an international cultural program set up by President John F. Kennedy. Later they traveled to Brazil, Europe, and West Africa. Ailey was choreographing dances for other companies too. He created Feast of Ashes for the Joffrey Ballet, three pieces for the Harkness ballet, and Anthony and Cleopatra for the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Ailey also worked on projects with other artists, including one with the jazz musician Duke Ellington for the American Ballet Theater. His company also gave a benefit performance for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). For Ailey the decade culminated with the performance of Masekela Language, a dance about the need for racial equality in South Africa, based on the music of Hugh Masekela, a black South African trumpeter who lived in exile for speaking out against apartheid. In her book Julinda Lewis-Ferguson described the piece as "raw, rough, almost unfinished, just like the buildings of the South African townships."
By the late 1970s Ailey's company was one of America's most popular dance troupes. They continued touring around the world, with U.S. State Department backing. They were the first modern dancers to visit the former Soviet Union since Isadora Duncan's dancers performed there during the 1920s. In 1971, Ailey's company was asked to return to the City Center Theater in New York City after a performance featuring Ailey's celebrated solo, Cry; danced by Judith Jamison, she made it one of the troupe's best known pieces.
Dedicated to "all black women everywhere— especially our mothers," the piece depicts the struggles of different generations of black American women. It begins with the unwrapping of a long white scarf that becomes many things during the course of the dance, including a wash rag, and ends with an expression of unquestioning belief and happiness danced to the late 1960s song, "Right On, Be Free." Of this and of all his works, Ailey told John Gruen in The Private World of Ballet,"I am trying to express something that I feel about people, life, the human spirit, the beauty of things. … My ballets are all very close to me— they're very personal. … I think that people come to the theater to look at themselves, to look at the state of things. I try to hold up the mirror. … "
In 1980, Ailey suffered a mental breakdown which put him in the hospital for several weeks. At the time he had lost a close friend, was going through midlife crisis, and was experiencing financial difficulties. Still, he choreographed a number of pieces for the company during the 1980s, and his reputation as a founding father of modern dance grew during the decade.
Ending a legendary career, Ailey died of a blood disorder called dyscrasia, on December 1, 1989. Thousands of people flocked to the memorial service for him held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. "Alvin Ailey was a giant among American artists, a towering figure on the international dance scene," Gerald Arpino, the artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, told the Washington Post. "His works have elated and moved audiences throughout the world. His spirit soars in his creations and he has enriched and illuminated our lives." Indeed, African American modern dance has firmly been entrenched in popular culture thanks to the presence of Ailey, creator of 79 dance pieces.
Earl Blackwell's Celebrity Register, Times Publishing Group, 1986, pp. 3-4; Gale Research Inc., 1990, pp. 2-3.
Ferguson, Julinda Lewis, Alvin Ailey, Jr.: A Life in Dance, Walker and Company, 1994, pp. 1-74.
Gruen, John, The Private World of Ballet, Viking, 1975, pp. 417-23.
Jamison, Judith, with Howard Kaplan, Dancing Spirit: An Autobiography, Doubleday, 1993, pp. 66-236.
Newsmakers, Gale Research Inc., 1989, 1990.
Rogosin, Elinor, The Dance Makers: Conversations With American Choreographers, Walker and Company, 1980, pp. 102-117.
Ballet News, November, 1983, pp. 13-16.
Chicago Tribune, December 3, 1989, Sec. 2, p. 16.
Dance Magazine, December, 1983, pp. 44, 46, 48; October, 1978, pp. 63-4, 66, 68, 72-4, 76.
Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1989, Sec. A-38.
Newsday, December 4, 1988, Part II, pp. 4-5, 27.
New York Times, December 2, 1989, pp. 1, 14.
Washington Post, December 2, 1989, Sec. A-1, A-12; Sec. C-1, C-9. □