|Born in Rogers, Texas, the only
child of working-class parents who separated when he was two, Ailey moved
to Los Angeles with his mother in 1942. Shy from his itinerant Texas life,
Ailey reluctantly turned to dance when a high-school classmate introduced
him to Lester Horton's Hollywood studio in 1949. He poured himself into
study and developed a weighty, smoldering performance style that suited
his athletic body. Ailey moved to New York in 1954 to dance with partner
Carmen DeLavallade in the Broadway production of "House of Flowers."
Performing success and study with leading modern dance and ballet teachers
Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Karel Shook led Ailey
to found his own dance theater company in 1958. The Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater (AAADT) began as a repertory company of seven dancers
devoted to both modern dance classics and new works created by Ailey and
other young artists. The critically successful first concerts in 1958 and
1960 marked the beginning of a new era of dance performance devoted to
African-American theme. "Blues Suite" (1958), set in and around a
barrelhouse, depicts the desperation and joys of life on the edge of
poverty in the South. Highly theatrical and immediately accessible, the
dance contains sections of early 20th-century social dances, Horton
dance technique, Jack Cole-inspired jazz dance, and ballet partnering.
Early performances of "Revelations" (1960) established Ailey's
company as the foremost dance interpreter of African-American experience.
The dance quickly became the company's signature ballet, eclipsing
previous concert attempts at dancing to sacred black music. Set to a
series of spirituals and gospel selections arranged by Brother John
Sellers, "Revelations" depicts a spectrum of black religious worship,
including richly sculpted group prayer ("I've Been Buked"), a ceremony of
ritual baptism ("Wade in the Water"), a moment of introverted, private
communion ("I Wanna Be Ready"), a duet of trust and support for a minister
and devotee ("Fix Me, Jesus"), and a final, celebratory gospel
exclamation, "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham."
Several Ailey dances established precedents for American dance.
"Feast of Ashes" (1962), created for the Harkness Ballet, is
acknowledged as the first successful "pointe" ballet choreographed by
a modern dancer. In 1966 Ailey contributed dances for the New York
Metropolitan Opera's inaugural production at Lincoln Center, Samuel
Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra." In 1970 he created "The River"
for American Ballet Theatre. Set to an original score commissioned from
Duke Ellington, this ballet convincingly fused theatrical jazz dancing and
ballet technique. In 1971 Ailey created the staging for Leonard
Bernstein's rock-influenced "Mass", which opened the newly built
Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Major distinctions and honors followed Ailey throughout his
choreographic career, which spanned the creation of more than 50 dances
for his own company, American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, the
Paris Opera Ballet, the London Festival Ballet, and the Royal Danish
Ballet. Among his many awards were honorary doctorates in fine arts from
Princeton University, Bard College, Adelphi University, and Cedar Crest
College; a United Nations Peace Medal, and an NAACP Spingarn Medal, in
1976. In 1988 he was celebrated by the president of the United States for
a lifetime of achievement in the arts at the Kennedy Center Honors.
COMPANY AND REPERTORY
In its earliest years, the AAADT spent much time on the road, touring
and bringing dance to a large audience of people who had never heard of
concert performance. This largely African-American audience has provided
the wellspring of support essential to the Ailey enterprise. The AAADT
established its vast international reputation through a series of tours
begun in 1962 by a five-month engagement in Southeast Asia and Australia.
Sponsored by the International Exchange Program under the Kennedy
administration, this tour established a pattern of performance in foreign
countries that continued with a trip to Rio de Janeiro (1963); a European
tour including London, Hamburg, and Paris (1964); an engagement at the
World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal (1966); a 16-week
European tour, including the Holland Festival in Amsterdam (1967); a visit
to Israel (August 1967); a U.S. State Department-sponsored nine-nation
tour of Africa (1967); and a performance at the Edinburgh Festival in
Scotland (1968). In 1970 the AAADT became the first American modern dance
company to perform in the postwar Soviet Union. The company has retained
peerless stature as a touring ambassador of goodwill since the 1970s; high
points have included a prize-winning performance at the International
Dance Festival in Paris (1970); a second Far East tour (1977); a Brazil
tour (1978); and several command performances for heads of state and
royalty. By 1989, the AAADT had been seen by some 15 million people
Active in the pursuit of dance history, the varied repertory of the
AAADT has, in Ailey's words, sustained an "impulse to preserve modern
dance to know where it's been in order to know where it's going, and to
encourage the participation of the audience" in that process. The eclectic
repertory has been provided by choreographers working in a variety of
dance modes, including ballet, jazz dance, Graham modern, Horton, and
Dunham technique. Important pieces danced by the company have included
Donald McKayle's "Rainbow Round My Shoulder" (1959), Talley Beatty's
"The Road of the Phoebe Snow" (1959), Anna Sokolow's "Rooms"
(1965), Louis Johnson's "Lament" (1965), Geoffrey Holder's
"Prodigal Prince" (1967), Ulysses Dove's "Vespers" (1986),
Judith Jamison's Forgotten Time (1989), and Donald Byrd's "Dance
at the Gym" (1991), as well as dances by venerable American
choreographers Ted Shawn, Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham, Joyce Trisler,
and Lester Horton. In 1976 the AAADT celebrated composer Duke Ellington
with a festival featuring 15 new ballets set to his music, a project
that highlighted Ellington's musical achievement.
Ailey encouraged his dancers to present individualized and highly
emotional performances, a strategy that created the first series of star
personalities in American modern dance. Judith Jamison's electrifying
performance of "Cry" presented a coherent relationship between the
dancing body and the experience of living as a black woman in America.
Created in 1971 as a birthday present for Ailey's mother, Lula Cooper,
"Cry" has been successfully assumed by several dancers, most notably
Donna Wood, Renee Robinson, Sara Yarborough, and Nasha Thomas. In 1972,
Ailey created the elegiac solo "Love Songs" for dancer Dudley
Williams, revived in 1993 by dancer Michael Joy. Dancer Gary DeLoatch, a
longtime principal with the company, brought an eloquent intensity to his
roles, especially as the pusher in Talley Beatty's "The Stack-Up"
(1983) and as Charlie Parker in Ailey's "For 'Bird'-- With Love"
(1984). Innumerable significant dance personalities have passed through
the AAADT, including Marilyn Banks, Hope Clarke, Carmen DeLavallade,
George Faison, Miguel Godreau, Dana Hash, Linda Kent, Desmond Richardson,
Kelvin Rotardier, Elizabeth Roxas, Clive Thompson, James Truitte, Andre
Tyson, and Sylvia Waters.
SCHOOL AND OUTREACH
In 1969 Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center School to
educate dance students in the history and art of ballet and modern dance.
Courses have been offered in dance technique and history, music for
dancers, dance composition, and theatrical design. In 1974 the Alvin Ailey
Repertory Ensemble, a professional performance ensemble, was formed under
the direction of Sylvia Waters as a bridge between study and membership in
professional dance companies. In 1984 the Alvin Ailey Student Performance
Group was created under the direction of Kelvin Rotardier. The Student
Performance Group has offered lecture-demonstrations to communities
traditionally underserved by the arts. In 1989 Dance Foundation Inc., the
umbrella organizations for the AAADT and the Ailey School, initiated the
Ailey Camps program, an outreach program designed to "enhance the
self-esteem, creative expression, and critical thinking skills of
inner-city youth through dance." Success of the initial venture in Kansas
City, Missouri, led to similar programs begun in New York City (1990) and
Baltimore, Md. (1992).
Ailey created the AAADT to feature the talents of his African-American
colleagues, though the company was never exclusively black. Ailey
integrated his company to counter the "reverse chauvinism in being an
all-black anything." He told the NEW YORK TIMES, "I am trying to
show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not
important. What is important is the quality of our work." In the last
interview conducted before his death, he commented that the essence of the
Ailey enterprise was that "the dancers be fed, kept alive, interested" in
the work. "We're trying to create a whole spectrum of experience for the
dancer as well as the audience," he said, dramatically understating the
realities of his achievements.
Ailey stopped dancing in 1965 and slowed his choreographic assignments
in the 1970s to attend to the administrative and fund-raising operations
associated with his ever expanding company. Upon Ailey's death, Judith
Jamison was appointed artistic director of the company, to work closely
with rehearsal director and longtime company member Masazumi Chaya. The
AAADT finally emerged from financial difficulties in 1992, when DANCE MAGAZINE proclaimed it "recession-proof" due to powerful development
efforts on the part of the Dance Foundation Inc.'s board of directors.
Although Ailey gave numerous interviews throughout his career, he was
decidedly private about his personal life. He described himself as "a
bachelor and a loner" to writer John Gruen and hardly ever allowed
outsiders into his most private thoughts. In 1980 Ailey was briefly
hospitalized for stress-related conditions. His death followed a long,
solitary struggle that had taken him out of the limelight for some time.
Ailey's legacy to the dance world was to foster a freedom of choice--from
ballet, modern, and social dance performance -- to best express humanity in
movement terms suited to the theatrical moment.
-- Thomas F. DeFrantz