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Dance in America: Beyond the Steps: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater banner
Clifton Brown in ''Love Stories'' (photo by Paul Kolnik-Thirteen/WNET
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Beyond the Steps


By Jennifer Dunning

It was nearly a half century ago that a small pick-up group of dancers rather grandly named Alvin Ailey and Company performed a work called "Blues Suite" in a theater at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Many in the audience that Sunday afternoon in March knew the company's young founder best as an irresistibly handsome, charismatic Broadway dancer. Some knew him as a recent arrival from Los Angeles, a modern dance performer trained by Lester Horton, a West Coast original who pushed his students to learn not only technique, but also how to make dances and put on a good show. Ailey was a funny, genial, driven young choreographer very like the 13 other dancers who made up the company. They had begun rehearsing for the concert the September before, in grimy rented studios throughout the theater district and onstage between performances at the Imperial Theater, where Ailey was appearing in the musical "Jamaica."

What reviews there were got Ailey and his performers off to a good start, with John Martin of THE NEW YORK TIMES describing the afternoon as "an impressive debut." And in April, each of the dancers received a carefully worded personal note from Ailey with a $5 bill enclosed, all the pay he could afford for the months of work, and more than they had expected. In all, light-years away from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater depicted in BEYOND THE STEPS, indisputably the most successful modern dance ensemble in the world today.

No one, least of all the frequently self-doubting Ailey, could have dreamed of today's full performing and rehearsal schedules, far-ranging world tours, or gleaming palace of dance, rising not too far from those first dingy rehearsal spaces, that is the company's home.

What Ailey did instinctively understand, it seems, is that an institution lives on through its lineage. Well before his death in 1989, he had approached an Ailey dancer named Sylvia Waters about overseeing a group of junior dancers who would one day, as Ailey II, be a dependable source of highly trained artists imbued with the Ailey history and spirit. He first welcomed the companionship of Masazumi Chaya, a senior dancer, and then passed on to him some of the most arduous tasks of running the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, effectively schooling Chaya, as he is affectionately known to all, to be the company's associate artistic director. And in a spirited, self-reliant dancer named Judith Jamison, Ailey recognized the star who would go on to lead the company into a new era, one without him.

As BEYOND THE STEPS recounts, history lives on. Back in Russia after a 15-year absence for the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Jamison must have thought more than once of the company's first difficult tour to the then Soviet Union, in 1970: malfunctioning stage equipment, too little food, and fans who mysteriously disappeared after making a personal connection with Ailey or his dancers. It taught her, Jamison would say years later, what the blues were all about. "We had a good time this time," she said recently. "There was sour cream in that borscht."

Top banner photos: Clifton Brown, Matthew Rushing, and Dwana Adiaha Smallwood; Dwana Adiaha Smallwood; and Matthew Rushing (all photos by Paul Kolnik -- Thirteen/WNET).

Artistic Director Judith Jamison with senior members of the company

Artistic Director Judith Jamison with senior members of the company (photo by Paul Kolnik -- Thirteen/WNET).

Clifton Brown (photo by Paul Kolnik -- Thirteen/WNET)

Dancer Clifton Brown joined AAADT in 1999 (photo by Paul Kolnik -- Thirteen/WNET).

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