Alvin Ailey

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Alvin Ailey, was born on January 5, 1931 and died on December 1, 1989, a.k.a. Alvin Ailey Jr., was an African-American dancer, director, choreographer, and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). He created AAADT and its affiliated Ailey School as havens for nurturing black artists and expressing the universality of the African-American experience through dance. His work fused theater, modern dance, ballet, and jazz with black vernacular, creating hope-fueled choreography that continues to spread global awareness of black life in America. Ailey’s choreographic masterpiece Revelations is recognized as one of the most popular and most performed ballets in the world. In this work he blended primitive, modern and jazz elements of dance with a concern for black rural America. On July 15, 2008, the United States Congress passed a resolution designating AAADT a “vital American cultural ambassador to the World.” That same year, in recognition of AAADT’s 50th anniversary, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared December 4 “Alvin Ailey Day” in New York City while then Governor David Paterson honoured the organization on behalf of New York State.

In 1958 Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to present his vision of honoring Black culture through dance. The company had its debut at the 92nd Street Y. The performance included Ailey’s first masterpiece, Blues Suite, which followed men and women as they caroused and cavorted over the course of an evening while blues music played in the background until church bells began to ring, signalling a return to mundane life. Two years later he premiered his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Revelations, again at the 92nd Street Y. In creating Revelations Ailey drew upon his “blood memories” of growing up in Texas surrounded by Black people, the church, spirituals, and the blues. The ballet charts the full range of feelings from the majestic “I Been ’Buked” to the rapturous “Wade in the Water”, closing with the electrifying finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” Revelations performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 2011

After this performance, and despite their success, the Ailey company struggled to find consistent bookings. Though the US State Department sponsored AAADT’s first international tour in 1962, which traveled across Asia—with followups to Senegal in 1966 and East & West Africa in 1967—the company was able to book only a few performances per season in America. After a successful week-long engagement at the Billy Rose Theatre, the company was invited to become the resident company at Brooklyn Academy of Music. The relationship did not go well and ended a few years later. Ailey struggled with the state department tours, which insisted on marketing the company as an “ethnic” company rather than a “modern’ dance company, and were closely supervised by the FBI – the latter referred to Ailey’s homosexuality as “lewd and criminal tendencies” and threatened his company with bankruptcy if he showed any signs of effeminate or homosexual behavior while on tour.

In 1970, with few bookings on the radar—and on the eve of a tour to Russia as part of a cultural exchange agreement—Ailey announced at a press conference that he was closing the company. In response, the State Department sponsored an Ailey tour of North Africa to tide things over. That August, the company toured to Russia where it was ecstatically received. Their performances were broadcast on Moscow television and seen by over 22 million viewers. On closing night, because the Russian audiences would not stop applauding, the company gave over 30 curtain calls. Returning home with news of this triumph, the company performed a two-week engagement at the ANTA Theater. By the end of January 1971 performance, the entire run was sold out. After 13 years, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was a monumental success. In August 1972 the company was briefly renamed Alvin Ailey City Center Dance Theater and became a resident company of New York City Center.

Though Ailey’s work has been met with popular and critical acclaim, there have been detractors of his theatrical style. Marcia Siegel accused the company of “selling soul”, and of amplifying and transforming the emotivity characteristic of Graham and his modern dance teachers into “metaphors of the American black experience” while creating a positive stereotype of “supremely physical, supremely sensitive beings” at the expense of genuineness”.

Ailey responded to such criticism by stating, “The black pieces we do that come from blues, spirituals and gospels are part of what I am. They are as honest and truthful as we can make them. I’m interested in putting something on stage that will have a very wide appeal without being condescending; that will reach an audience and make it part of the dance; that will get everybody into the theater. If it’s art and entertainment—thank God, that’s what I want to be.”

While Ailey choreographed more than 70 ballets for his dancers, he insisted that the company perform pieces by other choreographers rather than stand as a singular vehicle for his voice. In present-day the company continues this ethos by presenting major revivals and commissioning pieces from a wide range of choreographers. The company’s repertoire contains over 200 ballets.

Though AAADT was formed to celebrate African American culture and to provide performances for black dancers, who were frequently denied opportunities due to racist mores of the time, Ailey proudly employed artists based solely on artistic talent and integrity, regardless of their background. In addition to his work as artistic director and choreographer with AADT, Ailey also choreographed ballets for other companies including American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and The Metropolitan Opera. For American Ballet Theater, he created The River (1970), one of several choreographies he set to the jazz music of Duke Ellington.

From her joining in 1965, the dancer Judith Jamison served as Ailey’s muse. In 1971 she premiered Cry, which he dedicated to his mother and black women everywhere. Jamison took over as artistic director following his death. Other important figures in the company include Sylvia Waters, who in 1974, after performing with the company for six year was asked by Ailey to lead The Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble—a junior company, known today as Ailey 2, that prepares leading students for professional dance careers— and Masazumi Chaya, who danced with the company for 15 years then became rehearsal director, and was appointed associate artistic director in 1991.


Alvin Ailey by Andrea Pinkney

“This markedly talented husband-and-wife team offers a warm profile of dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey . . . intertwining Ailey’s alleged thoughts and conversations with facts about his childhood, his introduction to the world of dance . . . and his founding of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958.”–“Publishers Weekly,” starred review. Full color.

Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison

An important book for readers of all ages, this beautifully illustrated and engagingly written volume brings to life true stories of black men in history. Among these biographies, readers will find aviators and artists, politicians and pop stars, athletes and activists. The exceptional men featured include writer James Baldwin, artist Aaron Douglas, filmmaker Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, lawman Bass Reeves, civil rights leader John Lewis, dancer Alvin Ailey, and musician Prince.

100 African-Americans Who Shaped American History by Christinne Beckner

Organized chronologically and meticulously researched, this book provides an educational look at the prominent role that these individuals played and how their varied talents, ideas and expertise contributed to American history. 

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