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Alvin Ailey biography and timeline

Photo courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Alvin Ailey is one of the most important choreographers in the history of modern dance. In 1958, at just 27 years old, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey’s vision was of Black bodies unshackled and overflowing with feeling: Confidence… sorrow… joy… pride… beauty… possibility.

Raised by a single mother who struggled to provide, Ailey knew hardship growing up in Jim Crow Texas, but his life was rich with culture and love. His world was filled with blues and gospel, juke joints and church. Ailey’s story is one of sacrifice. Possessed by his ambitions, he dedicated himself to his company.

He endured racism and homophobia; addiction and mental illness; and the burden of being an iconic African American artist. In 1989, he tragically succumbed to the AIDS epidemic. Thirty years later, Ailey’s dream lives on. Where other modern dance companies were built to showcase their founders, Ailey saw his own as bigger than himself. In the work of choreographer Rennie Harris, Ailey comes alive for a whole new generation: His faith in the transformative power of dance, his grand embrace, his expression of complete freedom. See below for an extensive timeline of his achievements and milestones.

March 30, 1958

Alvin Ailey and a group of young, black modern dancers perform for the first time as members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York’s 92nd Street YM-YWHA.

March 30, 1958
1960

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater becomes a resident company of the 51st Street YWCA’s Clark Center for the Performing Arts—the Company’s first official residence. Alvin Ailey choreographs his classic masterpiece "Revelations," which brings the Company international acclaim.

1960
1962

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is chosen to go on an extensive tour to the Far East, Southeast Asia and Australia as part of President John F. Kennedy’s progressive “President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations.”

1962
1963

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs in a Chicago program entitled “My People: First Negro Centennial,” a collaboration between Duke Ellington and Talley Beatty. Judith Jamison sees Alvin Ailey perform with the Company for the first time in Philadelphia. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the Rio de Janeiro International Arts Festival.

1963
October 30, 1965

Judith Jamison dances with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the first time. She will be one of the most recognized and lauded members of the Ailey company throughout her 15-year tenure as a dancer.

October 30, 1965
1966

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater participates in the first Negro Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal. Alvin Ailey choreographs Antony and Cleopatra for Leontyne Price at Lincoln Center.

1966
1967

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater appears in a television dance special directed by Lars Egler called "Riedaglia." The piece features Ailey’s choreography set to music by George Reidel. Ailey wins the Grand Prix Italia, a prestigious television production award. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater embarks on a two-and-a-half month, 10 country tour of Africa for the State Department.

1967
1968

Alvin Ailey sets "Revelations" on Ballet Folklorico for the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. This becomes the only performance of Revelations by a company other than Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or Ailey II. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater receives its first grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at the White House for President Johnson.

1968
1969

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater moves to Brooklyn Academy of Music. Alvin Ailey establishes a school. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's first season in Manhattan at the Billy Rose Theater.

1969
1970

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the school relocate to 229 East 59th Street in Manhattan to share a renovated church building with Pearl Lang. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Pearl Lang Dance Company share rehearsal space while Alvin Ailey and Pearl Lang co-direct their joint school, the American Dance Center, in the three available studios. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s second State Department-sponsored tour of North Africa and Europe. Affected by a financial crisis common to all dance companies in America, Alvin Ailey issues a statement that the Company may be dissolved because of insufficient funds to keep its dancers employed for “a reasonable amount of time each year.” Dance Theater Foundation, Inc., a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, is created to help seek sustaining funds for the Company. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater goes on a six-week tour of the USSR—the first for an American modern dance company since the days of Isadora Duncan. The Washington Post reports that the Company was kept onstage for 20 minutes of curtain calls after a sold-out opening night performance at Moscow’s Variety Theater. Alvin Ailey choreographs "The River" for American Ballet Theatre. Alvin Ailey is awarded the Gold Star for Best Modern Dance Company and Best Modern Dance Choreographer at the 1970 International Dance Festival.

1970
1971

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater appears for the first time at New York’s City Center. The Company is such a smashing success that it is invited to perform there again three months later. Alvin Ailey choreographs “Cry” for Judith Jamison as a birthday present to his mother. “Cry” becomes an instant hit, bringing even more popularity to Alvin Ailey as a brilliant choreographer and Judith Jamison as an extraordinary dancer. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater participates in the inaugural gala performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

1971
1972

Alvin Ailey is awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from Princeton University. Masazumi Chaya joins Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a dancer. Judith Jamison receives the distinguished Dance Magazine Award. Judith Jamison becomes a presidential appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Alvin Ailey choreographs "Carmen" for the Metropolitan Opera. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater becomes City Center’s first resident modern dance company.

1972
1974

"Memories and Visions," a television special produced by Ellis Haizlip, is broadcast on PBS on May 6. Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble—a professional dance company with a full touring schedule—is created in order to help the most talented students from Alvin Ailey American Dance Center make the leap from studio to stage. CBS airs Ailey Celebrates Ellington, Alvin Ailey’s dance tribute to the American jazz legend.

1974
1975

Alvin Ailey receives the Dance Magazine Award. Board of New York Friends of Alvin Ailey is formed.

1975
1976

The Company performs at the Duke Ellington Festival at Lincoln Center with the Ellington Orchestra. Alvin Ailey choreographs "Pas de Duke" for Judith Jamison and Mikhail Baryshnikov and they receive keys to New York City. The NAACP awards Alvin Ailey the prestigious Spingarn Award.

1976
1977

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala at the White House. On April 26, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed at the opening night of Studio 54.

1977
1978

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates its 20th Anniversary. On November 15, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gives a special performance for President Jimmy Carter at the White House. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gives its fabled “midnight performance” for the Crown Prince of Morocco. Yielding to the Crown Prince’s insistence that the Company celebrate the new year with him, the dancers do not actually perform until 3am, following a full Moroccan New Year feast!

1978
1979

Alvin Ailey receives the Capezio Dance Award for his contributions to dance. The Company moves into its new home at 1515 Broadway. Ulysses Dove creates his first ballet, "Inside," for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Judith Jamison.

1979
1980

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble and Alvin Ailey American Dance Center relocate to four new studios built to their specifications in a building on Broadway.

1980
1981

Alexander Godunov and Judith Jamison perform Spell as guest performers at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s opening night gala.

1981
1982

Alvin Ailey receives the United Nations Peace Medal. Alvin Ailey American Dance Center is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance and is now authorized to enroll non-immigrant alien students.

1982
1983

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates its 25th Anniversary. Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey is founded. Alvin Ailey choreographs "Precipice" for the Paris Opera Ballet.

1983
1984

Judith Jamison premieres her first ballet, "Divining," for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with music by Kimati Dinizulu and Monti Ellison. Alvin Ailey’s "For ‘Bird’–With Love" is created and performed to honor Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s relationship with Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey.

1984
1985

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the first modern dance company to go on a U.S. government-sponsored tour of the People’s Republic of China since the normalization of Sino-American relations.

1985
1987

Alvin Ailey receives the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, modern dance’s greatest honor.

1987
1988

On December 4, Alvin Ailey receives The Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts—the nation’s highest official distinction for creative artists. Alvin Ailey receives New York City’s highest cultural honor—the Handel Medallion. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrates its 30th Anniversary.

1988
1989

The entire Ailey organization—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble and Alvin Ailey American Dance Center—moves to 211 West 61st Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Judith Jamison becomes Artistic Associate for the U.S. tour. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs with Jessye Norman at the Grand Palais Theatre for the Paris Centennial. NBC airs Bill Cosby’s special tribute to Alvin Ailey entitled "Cosby Salutes Ailey." Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey launches the first Ailey Camp program.

1989
December 1, 1989

Alvin Ailey died at the age of 58. Honoring Mr. Ailey’s wish, Judith Jamison became the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater after his death.

December 1, 1989
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