January 5, 1931
December 1, 1989
Born in Rogers, Texas, the only child of working-class parents who separated when he was two, dancer and choreographer Alvin 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 themes. 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 twentieth-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 the 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 fifty dances for his own company, the 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 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 sixteenweek 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 retained peerless stature as a touring ambassador of goodwill beginning in the 1970s; high points 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 2004 the AAADT had been seen by some nineteen million people worldwide.
Active in the pursuit of dance history, the varied repertory of the AAADT has, in the words of Ailey in an American Broadcast Company television program, Americans All, 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 (1974). The eclectic repertory was 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 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), Donald Byrd's Dance at the Gym (1991), Jawolle Willa Jo Zollar's Shelter (1992), Ronald K. Brown's Grace (1999), and Alonzo King's Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000), 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 fifteen 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, Dwight Rhoden, Desmond Richardson, Kelvin Rotardier, Elizabeth Roxas, Matthew Rushing, Clive Thompson, James Truitte, Andre Tyson, and Sylvia Waters.
School and Outreach
In 1969 Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center to educate dance students in the history and art of ballet and modern dance. Courses were 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 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," according to a Dance Theater Foundation press release in 1989. Success of the initial venture in Kansas City, Missouri, led to similar programs begun in New York City (1990) and Baltimore, Maryland (1992).
Ailey created the AAADT to feature the talents of his African-American colleagues, although 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 (1988)." 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" because of powerful development efforts on the part of the Dance Foundation Inc.'s board of directors. Jamison has led the troupe to great fiscal and artistic strength, with her own choreography featured in the newest repertory. In 2005, the Alvin Ailey Dance Center opened in Manhattan as the nation's largest facility devoted to dance.
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 (1972) 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.
DeFrantz, Thomas F. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Goodman, Saul. "Brief Biographies: Alvin Ailey." Dance Magazine (December 1958): 70.
Gruen, John. "Interview with Alvin Ailey." Transcript of interview, collection of New York Public Library, 1972.
Kisselgoff, Anna. "Alvin Ailey: Dancing the Dream." New York Times (December 4, 1988): H2.
Latham, Jacqueline Quinn. "A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists: Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey." Ph.D. diss., Texas Women's University, 1973.
Long, Richard. The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.
Mazo, Joseph H., and Susan Cook. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. New York: Morrow, 1978.
Moore, William. "Alvin Ailey (1931–1989)." Ballet Review 17, no. 4 (1990): 12–17.
thomas f. defrantz (1996)
Updated by author 2005
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.
Directed Horton's Troupe
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 theMartha 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."
Established Own Dance Company
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."
Ailey's Solo Cry A Smash Hit
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. □
Ailey was born to Alvin Ailey and Lula Elizabeth Cliff Cooper, and grew up picking cotton in rural southern Texas. His father left when Ailey was six months old. Ailey later considered the poverty and racism of 1930s Texas "an enormous stain" on his life. The rousing spirituals he heard in the region's Baptist churches, and the blues he listened to in its nightclubs, influenced Ailey in a more positive way. Ailey was twelve when he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he saw performances by Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and dancer Katherine Dunham's revues Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. Years later, he met and collaborated with Ellington on My People and The River, and dedicated the dance Pas de Duke to him. He also restaged one of Dunham's revues with his own company. His mother married in 1945 and Ailey's stepbrother, Calvin, was born in 1953.
Ailey began studying modern dance at age eighteen with modern dance pioneer Lester Horton, whose integrated dance troupe was a rarity in its day. From Horton, Ailey learned a wide range of dance forms, including Japanese theater and Native American dances. When Horton died in 1953, Ailey took over the company, but his nontraditional education influenced him to develop his own dance style. Ailey's first choreographed pieces were Afternoon Blues in 1953, According to St. Francis (a tribute to Horton), La Creation du Monde (Creation of the World), and Mourning Morning, all in 1954.
Ailey danced in local nightclubs as part of the duo "Al and Rita" with fellow dance student Marguerite Angelos, who later achieved fame as the poet Maya Angelou. He became fascinated with the entire theatrical presentation of the dance—the music, costumes, lights, and themes. He studied languages in college at the University of California at Los Angeles (1949 to 1950), Los Angeles City College (1950 to 1951), and San Francisco State College (1952 to 1953), but dropped out to pursue dance in New York City. There, Ailey studied dance with modern dance legendMartha Graham, as well as Hanya Holm and Karel Shook. He appeared with Dorothy Dandridge in the film Carmen Jones (1954). He also performed with Harry Belafonte in Sing, Man, Sing (1956), and with Lena Horne in Jamaica (1957), and acted in plays, including Carefree Tree (1955), and the short-lived Broadway production Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright (1962).
Ailey struggled to put together his own troupe, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), which rehearsed wherever it could. His inaugural concert, featuring all Ailey originals, took place on 30 March 1958, and his Ode and Homage, Redonda, and Blues Suite won enthusiastic approval from the audience. Ailey danced his own Ariette Oubliee to Debussy music in a second concert that year. In his third concert, he unveiled Revelations, which remained a cornerstone dance for his troupe more than forty years later. The Ailey company of the 1950s and 1960s included many of Horton's former students. Ailey also choreographed pieces for other companies: 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.
Revelations debuted in 1960 and was the product of endless research, countless hours of listening to music, and extensive soul-searching for Ailey. He recalled sleepy Sundays in church with his mother. The dance is built around spirituals sung by a live choir, including "I Been 'Buked, I Been Scorned," and follows a chronological flow of sorts. It is simple, direct, and powerful. The opening segment features the dancers dressed in simple, earth-tone costumes, signifying sorrow and a sense of rootedness in the soil. The opening stance, with a group of dancers close together, arms stretched to the sky, is among the most memorable in modern dance. It exemplifies the plainness and simplicity that gave Ailey's work an air of truth. The second section represents baptism, and dancers in pure white and blue tones. Ailey re-created onstage his own baptism, which had taken place in a snake-infested pond behind a church in his home-town. The final scene echoes the energy of a gospel church, with bright yellows and browns, the women carrying small fans. It has been said that more people have seen Revelations than any other ballet created in the twentieth century.
After two years of "station wagon tours," as Ailey called them, AAADT made a home for itself in a New York City YWCA in 1960. The troupe and its supporters converted the space into a 450-seat theater, rehearsal space, and costume house. It was called Clark Center for Performing Arts after the family that had donated funds to the renovation. At the Clark Center, Ailey found complete acceptance for what he was—an African American, a homosexual, and an incredibly talented and inspired artist. The place became a friendly hangout for African-American theater performers, dancers, and musicians. Six dancers filled the small stage for the first performance in November 1960, which included Lester Horton's Beloved and Revelations. Ailey was known for producing works by little-known choreographers, many of whom were competitive with him. He believed strongly that the work of choreographers who lacked their own companies would likely be lost without an effort to preserve those pieces, and that modern dance needed a living repository of both its classic and lesser-known dances.
Ailey's vision of what dance should be—"a popular form, wrenched from the hands of the elite"—appealed to increasingly larger audiences, although he always felt he had to make an extra effort to attract African Americans to the theater. He once estimated that only 20 percent of his audiences were black. He made a "social and political statement" with his primarily black dance troupe, as African Americans were not accepted in most other classical or concert dance companies. In the more militant 1960s, however, he was criticized for allowing whites and Asians to dance with his company.
The troupe found a more receptive audience in Europe, where it was met with hour-long standing ovations. Fueled in part by the universal popularity of the music in Revelations, the U.S. State Department invited the Ailey company to perform on an extensive and highly acclaimed 1962 tour of Southeast Asia, Ailey's first trip abroad. AAADT's international destinations also included Brazil and Africa, and, in 1970, Ailey's became the first American troupe to tour the Soviet Union.
Ailey managed the troupe's cash-strapped operations while dancing and choreographing, often disbanding the company when finances ran out, only to regroup. He lost dancers after every show because, he said, even faithful performers need to eat. Ailey constantly had to worry about money, and this, he felt, limited him artistically. He wanted the best in designers, music, and rehearsal spaces, and wanted to keep his dancers happy. It confounded him that the bulk of contributions went to classical ballet troupes.
In 1965 Ailey left the dancing to his dancers and the running of the business to a team of devoted supporters while he narrowed his focus to concentrate solely on choreography. By this time, the Ailey family included the dance theater, its training company, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Dancer Judith Jamison joined the troupe in 1965, danced for fifteen years, then took over as artistic director.
Given to fits of temper and passionate outbursts, Ailey was notoriously difficult to work with. "I sacrifice everything to stay in dance," he wrote in his autobiography, and he expected those around him to do the same. He hired dancers who were temperamental, too, because he preferred their instincts and expressiveness. He chose round, full women along with the typical long, lean dancers, but detested the blank faces and cookie-cutter bodies that were the preference and trademark of the legendary ballet choreographer George Balanchine. "Come dancers," he would say as his dancers gathered around him the first day of a rehearsal for a new piece, to hear his ideas. His rehearsals were as much about acting as dancing, a method which took some getting used to.
Revelations launched a decade that was filled with a whirlwind of events and achievements for Ailey. He performed lead roles off and on Broadway, appeared with his company at the two most prestigious American dance festivals, and toured the world. He choreographed sixteen dances in the 1960s, including Quintet and the raw Masekela Langage, the latter about South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela, who was exiled for criticizing apartheid. The troupe performed at the White House for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Ailey choreographed The River for the American Ballet Theatre in 1970. His famous Cry, which was a birthday present to his mother and a tribute to all black women, debuted in 1971, and became an instant classic. He watched his company grow in size and prestige, even as it often mirrored the complexities of race issues in the United States.
The late 1970s saw the deaths of many of Ailey's close friends, including Duke Ellington and former Horton dancer Joyce Trisler. Ailey turned to drugs and was hospitalized for depression. He cleaned up his life, continued to choreograph, and kept the company together. By 1984, when Ailey and the troupe celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary at the New York City Center, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater had performed before some 15 million people in 44 countries on 6 continents. Ailey died of complications from AIDS, and is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
Writings on Ailey include his own Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey (1995), as well as Jack Mitchell, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (1993), and Jennifer Dunning, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance (1996).
Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and won international fame as both a dancer and choreographer, a creator and arranger of dance performances.
Alvin Ailey Jr. was born to Alvin and Lula Elizabeth Ailey on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas. He was an only child, and his father, a laborer, left the family when Alvin Jr. was less than one year old. At the age of six, Alvin Jr. moved with his mother to Navasota, Texas. As 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 [only members of one race allowed] theaters and neighborhoods. Like most of my generation, I grew up feeling like an outsider, like someone who didn't matter."
In 1942 Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles, California, where his mother found work in an aircraft factory. Ailey became interested in athletics and joined his high school gymnastics team and played football. An admirer of dancers Gene Kelly (1912–1996) and Fred Astaire (1899–1987), he also took tap dancing lessons at a neighbor's home. His interest in dance grew when a friend took him to visit the modern dance school run by Lester Horton, whose dance company (a group of dancers who perform together) was the first in America to admit members of all races. Unsure of what opportunities would be available for him as a dancer, however, Ailey left Horton's school after one month. After graduating from high school in 1948, Ailey considered becoming a teacher. He entered the University of California in Los Angeles to study languages. When Horton offered him a scholarship in 1949 Ailey returned to the dance school. He left again after one year, however, this time to attend San Francisco State College.
For a time Ailey danced in a nightclub in San Francisco, California, then he returned to the Horton school to finish his training. When Horton took the company east for a performance in New York City in 1953, Ailey was with him. When Horton died suddenly, the young Ailey took charge as the company's artistic director. Following Horton's style, Ailey choreographed two pieces that were presented at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. 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 based on Truman Capote's (1924–1984) book. Ailey continued taking dance classes while performing in the show. He also studied ballet and acting. From the mid-1950s through the early 1960s Ailey appeared in many 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 part in the play Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright.
In 1958 Ailey and another dancer with an interest in choreographing recruited dancers to perform several concerts at the 92nd Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association in New York City, a place where modern dances and the works of new choreographers were seen. Ailey's first major piece, Blues Suite, was inspired by blues music. The performance drew praise. Ailey then scheduled a second concert 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 (1899–1974), Revelations pulled the audience into African American religious life.
Established own dance company
In 1959 Ailey established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a group of eight black dancers. One year later, the theater became the resident dance company at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. By the mid-1960s Ailey, who struggled with his weight, gave up dancing in favor of choreography. He also oversaw business details as the director of his ambitious dance company. By 1968 the company had received funding from private and public organizations but still had money problems, even as it brought modern dance to audiences around the world. Ailey also had the leading African American soloist (a person who performs by oneself) of modern dance, Judith Jamison (1944–). Having employed Asian and white dancers since the mid-1960s, Ailey had also integrated (included people of different races) his company. In 1969 the company moved to Brooklyn, New York, as the resident dance company of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an arts center with three theaters.
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 (1917–1963). Later the company traveled to Brazil, Europe, and West Africa. Ailey also choreographed dances for other companies, including Feast of Ashes for the Joffrey Ballet and Anthony and Cleopatra for the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York City. Ailey worked on projects with other artists, including one with Duke Ellington for the American Ballet Theater. For Ailey the decade peaked with the performance of Masekela Language, a dance based on the music of Hugh Masekela, a black South African trumpeter who lived in exile for speaking out against apartheid (South Africa's policy of separation based on race).
By the late 1970s Ailey's company was one of America's most popular dance troupes. Its members continued touring around the world, with U.S. State Department backing. They were the first modern dancers to visit the former Soviet Union since the 1920s. In 1971 Ailey's company was asked to return to the City Center Theater in New York City after a performance featured 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, and ends with an expression of 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.…"
Ailey suffered a breakdown in 1980 that put him in the hospital for several weeks. At the time he had lost a close friend, was going through a midlife crisis, and was experiencing money problems. Still, he continued to work, and his reputation as a founding father of modern dance grew during the decade.
Ailey received many honors 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. Ailey died of a blood disorder on December 1, 1989. Thousands of people flocked to the memorial service held for him at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
For More Information
Ailey, Alvin, with A. Peter Bailey. Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1995.
Dunning, Jennifer. Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Probosz, Kathilyn Solomon. Alvin Ailey, Jr. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.