Celebrating the birth, life, and gift to the world that was Alvin Ailey is for me a joyous way to start off the new year. In writing about his death for World AIDS Day, I closed the story with, "Somewhere — he is choreographing clouds and the wind," and I feel that that should also be the way to open his birthday celebration, because for me he is the spirit of dance, which is a force of nature.
He may not be here in corporeal form, but his spirit imbues the world of modern dance. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater he built lives on, and the dances he contributed, the dancers and choreographers he nurtured and inspired have transformed our culture.
His early years mirrored the ugly reality of many black beginnings in America.
In Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture, author Thomas F. Defrantz, professor of Dance at Duke University, wrote of Ailey’s childhood:
Ailey's Childhood: Race Matters
Born 5 January 1931 into the abject poverty of rural Texas, Ailey was raised by his mother after his parents separated when he was an infant. He suffered a difficult, transient childhood in depression-era Texas, moving often as his mother struggled to find work. Strictly segregated life in southeast Texas offered a hostile environment for African Americans and nurtured a fear and mistrust of whites Ailey often recalled in interviews: “I heard about lynchings. Having that kind of experience as a child left a feeling of rage in me that I think pervades my work.” This background also created a fierce pride in black social institutions, including the church and jook joints, which figure prominently in his later work.
Racial division played a significant role in Ailey's childhood and adolescent self-awareness. An atmosphere of fear “which seemed to prevail among the blacks in Southeast Texas” emerged in Ailey's “blood memory” pieces, dances that traced remembered fragments of his Texas childhood, specifically Blues Suite and Revelations.
Among these blood memories loomed Ailey's shadowy memory of his mother's rape by a white man when he was five. Like many African Americans of his generation, Ailey came to understand black life as the result of political domination by anonymous bands of whites.
In her New York Times obituary for Ailey, Jennifer Dunning, the author of Alvin Ailey: A Life In Dance, continues his story:
Mr. Ailey came into contact with dance gradually in Los Angeles, where he and his mother moved when he was 12. An athletic student with a gift for foreign languages, Mr. Ailey did backyard imitations of Gene Kelly, but did not see a live dance performance until a junior high school class trip to a performance by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Though disappointed that ''Scheherazade'' seemed so tame, he began to haunt the city's theater section. ''I first saw the Dunham company there,'' he recalled years later. ''I went over one day and there were pictures of black dancers.''
Fascinated by Miss Dunham's ''Tropical Revue,'' he was persuaded by a school friend to take dance classes with a member of the Dunham company. He was put off, however, by the tawdry atmosphere of the nightclub in which the class took place. Then he encountered the work of Lester Horton, an influential modern dance teacher and choreographer who was based in Los Angeles. Horton was known for taking inspiration from American Indian dance and Japanese theater, for his philosophy of total theater and for his racially integrated dance company, said to be the first in the nation.
Mr. Ailey said of his introduction to Horton's style: ''One day a friend showed me some movements from a class he was taking, and I nearly fainted. I said, 'Oh, my God, what is that?' And he said, 'That's modern dancing.' '' Mr. Ailey began to study with Horton in 1949 and made his debut as a dancer with the company the following year. He left several times to study languages at the University of California at Los Angeles and other area colleges, but returned to the company in 1953 and found himself taking over as director when Horton died that year.
Mr. Ailey created his first three dances for the company. But in 1954 he and Carmen de Lavallade, also a Horton dancer, were invited to perform on Broadway as featured dancers in Truman Capote's ''House of Flowers.'' The musical ran for only four months, but Mr. Ailey settled in New York to study modern dance with Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Charles Weidman, ballet with Karel Shook and acting with Stella Adler and Milton Katselas.
Susan Fales-Hill, writing for Ebony on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the company in 2008, detailed the Dance Theater’s birth:
ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN MARCH OF 1958, an integrated crowd of 960 New Yorkers crammed into the Kaufman Auditorium at the 92nd Street Y to watch an audacious young African-American man set the modern dance world on its ear. At the time, even in the North, de facto segregation prevailed in everything from housing to dance classes. With very rare exceptions, concert dance was the exclusive province of white companies. Yet with a budget of a couple hundred dollars, and 13 dancers borrowed from the Broadway show Jamaica, in which he was performing, 27-year-old Alvin Ailey Jr. presented as high art a ballet set to blues music and dealing with the lives of ordinary African-Americans. It was there that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born.
Though the company came of age at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Ailey usually avoided overtly political content. He considered it a statement to have a predominantly, but not exclusively, Black company that celebrated universal themes through the particulars of the African-American experience. He also tried to enshrine Black cultural heritage, often paying homage in his work to giants like Duke Ellington, Charlie (Bird) Parker, and of course, Dunham.
While he created 79 ballets during his lifetime, the most popular, Cry, and the legendary Revelations, are firmly rooted in the "blood memories" of his Southern childhood in Texas, street life and the Baptist church. They chronicle the passage from oppression to jubilant redemption and deliverance. Created in 1960 to a gospel song he heard at age 5 ("I been 'buked and I been scorned"), Revelations has now been seen by an estimated 21 million people worldwide and has brought audiences from Sydney to San Francisco to their feet.
This 50th anniversary documentary details more of the AAADT’s history:
Those of you who love photography should see Jack Mitchell’s work. His 2013 obituary in The New York Times covered his work with Ailey:
Mr. Mitchell was the official photographer for the American Ballet Theater, and he chronicled the work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for decades. Posing dancers, encouraging them to leap, to stretch, to point their feet, he “had a way of either moving you into the pose or getting you into the pose and keeping you live while you were in it,” Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theater, said in [Craig] Highberger’s film, “My Life Is Black and White.”
Judith Jamison, the dancer and choreographer who is now artistic director emeritus of the Ailey troupe, said in the documentary: “He pulled the uniqueness out of you regardless of whether you wanted it pulled out of you or not.” She added: “I look at myself growing up in his pictures. I look at Alvin growing up.”
The book Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jack Mitchell Photographs was published in 1993.
Judith Jamison (artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and Richard Philp (editor-in-chief, Dance Magazine ) provide information on photographer Mitchell and his long-time association with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. An outstanding photographer of dance, Mitchell met Ailey in the late 1950s. In 1961, he began photographic documentation of the company, laying the groundwork for a professional association that continues today. Ailey's signature pieces--"Revelations," "Blues Suite," "Cry," "Hermit Songs," "The Lark Ascending"--are included, as are dances in the company's repertory by other choreographers. Although a picture is worth a thousand words, the absence of bibliographic data on each dance (e.g., composer, date of first performance, principal dancers) is an oversight. Given the deserved popularity of the company, this title will have a large audience in both public and academic libraries. For a related work, see Judith Jamison's Dancing Spirit , reviewed above.--Ed.
- Joan Stahl, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
You can see some of Mitchell’s Ailey photos via The Smithsonian.
As of 2006, the Library of Congress holds the Alvin Ailey archives. Library of Congress editor Gail Fineberg wrote of the library’s acquisition of the archives in “Delivering Dance to the People: Library Revels in Alvin Ailey Dance Acquisition”:
That happened on Feb. 8, with the transfer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AADT) archives to the people of the United States, whose national library, the Library of Congress, will preserve the materials, digitize them and make them more widely available to future generations.
"The legacy of Ailey is of seminal importance, not just to the performing arts world, but also to the broader public," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "The Ailey Company embodies the best of American culture: It inspires creativity, it energizes us all, it educates America's children, it celebrates diversity."
Present for the ceremony were Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton said she was pleased to have a part in the program because some of the funding to pay for the processing and digitization of the Alvin Ailey archives will come from the White House Millennium Council's preservation program, "Save America's Treasures," which she started when she was first lady.
"The very beauty of dance helps us think more deeply about our shared human experience, and that's why this extensive collection of … sketches, of dances, programs, costume design, everything, including nearly 21 linear feet of audiotapes and of original Alvin Ailey footage, is so important," Clinton said.
She noted that intranet systems available on site at the Library, as well as the Alvin Ailey Company in New York City, will make the digitized items available to "students, dancers and interested advocates and supporters of the arts throughout the country and, indeed, the world."
- Ailey's personal papers, including sketches of dances, programs, costume designs, rehearsal notes, honorary degrees and correspondence with noted photographer Carl Van Vechten;
- musical manuscripts and orchestrations, including holographic scores of works by Duke Ellington, Keith Jarrett, Leonard Bernstein, Phoebe Snow and Donald McKayle, as well as collaborative works with Katherine Dunham;
- Ailey's groundbreaking "Revelations" and his work on Bernstein's "Mass";
- the contents of Ailey's desk, including business correspondence, press kits, contracts and personal correspondence;
- national and international news clippings containing the original pasteups from 1960 to 1961;
- 998 original telegrams and congratulatory notes from dignitaries and celebrities around the globe;
- 8,500 black-and-white photographs representing an artistic and visual record of most of Ailey's ballets, as well as those of other choreographers whose works were performed with AAADT. Some of the most notable photographers included are Jack Mitchell, Fred Fehl, Kenn Duncan, Normand Maxon, Susan Cook, Anthony Crickmay, Johan Elbers, Lois Greenfield, Jack Vartoogian and Martha Swope;
- audiotapes used for performances from 1958 to 1995 and 24 reels of 16mm film footage; and
- some 4,000 programs of national and international appearances from 1958 to 2004.
For those of you who want to delve more deeply into Ailey’s work and choreography, the book I mentioned in the opening should be first on your list. The description published on Amazon ofDancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture notes:
In the early 1960s, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was a small, multi-racial company of dancers that performed the works of its founding choreographer and other emerging artists. By the late 1960s, the company had become a well-known African American artistic group closely tied to the Civil Rights struggle. In Dancing Revelations, Thomas DeFrantz chronicles the troupe's journey from a small modern dance company to one of the premier institutions of African American culture. He not only charts this rise to national and international renown, but also contextualizes this progress within the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights struggles of the late 20th century.
DeFrantz examines the most celebrated Ailey dances, including Revelations, drawing on video recordings of Ailey's dances, published interviews, oral histories, and his own interviews with former Ailey company dancers. Through vivid descriptions and beautiful illustrations, DeFrantz reveals the relationship between Ailey's works and African American culture as a whole. He illuminates the dual achievement of Ailey as an artist and as an arts activist committed to developing an African American presence in dance. He also addresses concerns about how dance performance is documented, including issues around spectatorship and the display of sexuality, the relationship of Ailey's dances to civil rights activism, and the establishment and maintenance of a successful, large-scale Black Arts institution.
Throughout Dancing Revelations, DeFrantz illustrates how Ailey combined elements of African dance with motifs adapted from blues, jazz, and Broadway to choreograph his dances. By re-interpreting these tropes of black culture in his original and well-received dances, DeFrantz argues that Ailey played a significant role in defining the African American cultural canon in the twentieth century. As the first book to examine the cultural sources and cultural impact of Ailey's work, Dancing Revelations is an important contribution to modern dance history and criticism as well as African-American studies.
No tribute to Ailey would be complete without also mentioning Judith Jamison. Notes the Ailey company’s website:
Judith Jamison joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1965 and quickly became an international star. Over the next 15 years, Mr. Ailey created some of his most enduring roles for her, most notably the tour-de-force solo Cry. During the 1970s and 80s, she appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies all over the world, starred in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, and formed her own company, The Jamison Project. She returned to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1989 when Mr. Ailey asked her to succeed him as Artistic Director. In the 21 years that followed, she brought the Company to unprecedented heights – including two historic engagements in South Africa and a 50-city global tour to celebrate the Company’s 50th anniversary. Ms. Jamison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a prime time Emmy Award, an American Choreography Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Arts, a “Bessie” Award, the Phoenix Award, and the Handel Medallion. She was also listed in “TIME 100: The World’s Most Influential People” and honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the first White House Dance Series event. In 2015, she became the 50th inductee into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.
As a highly regarded choreographer, Ms. Jamison has created many celebrated works, including Divining (1984), Forgotten Time (1989), Hymn (1993), HERE . . .NOW. (commissioned for the 2002 Cultural Olympiad), Love Stories (with additional choreography by Robert Battle and Rennie Harris, 2004), and Among Us (Private Spaces: Public Places) (2009). Ms. Jamison’s autobiography, Dancing Spirit, was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and published in 1993. In 2004, under Ms. Jamison’s artistic directorship, her idea of a permanent home for the Ailey company was realized and named after beloved chairman emerita Joan Weill. Ms. Jamison continues to dedicate herself to asserting the prominence of the arts in our culture, and she remains committed to promoting the significance of the Ailey legacy – using dance as a medium for honoring the past, celebrating the present and fearlessly reaching into the future.
Dancing Spirit is her autobiography. From the Amazon site for the book:
Judith Jamison is, in every sense, a towering figure. Her commanding physical presence and extraordinary technique have made her not only a superstar of American dance and an innovator in her field, but also an inspiration to African Americans, to women, and to people of all origins around the world...Now, with Anchor's paperback publication, an even wider audience can trace the steps of her career: her early years in Philadelphia, where she began studying dance at the age of six, her discovery by Agnes de Mille; years of frustration and struggle in a field that favored petite, fair, White women; her legendary collaboration with Alvin Ailey; her work on Broadway in the musical Sophisticated Ladies ; the formation of her own company, the Jamison Project, and her retum to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as artistic director after its founder's death in 1989. Dancing Spirit contains vivid portraits of many artists Jamison has worked with including Agnes de Mille, Alvin Ailey, Jessye Norman, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen de Lavallade, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, to name only a few. And Jamison talks frankly about the price exacted by a dancer's nomadic life--rootlessness, fleeting relationships, the obsession with physical beauty. Illustrated with sixty photographs, Dancing Spirit is a candid and immediate self-portrait of a unique American artist whose work has left an indelible mark on the world of dance.
"Dance can elevate our human experience beyond words," says Judith Jamison, artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In between performances of excerpts from Alvin Ailey's classic works "Revelations" and "Cry," Jamison reflects on the enduring power of dance to transform history into art that thrills audiences around the world. (Performances by Solomon Dumas, Samantha Figgins and Constance Stamatiou)
What fascinated me about Ailey’s company, which I had the chance to see frequently when I lived in New York City, was its introduction of the work of many choreographers. From the Library of Congress:
Although he created seventy-nine ballets during his lifetime, Ailey maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. He envisioned a company that would both commission new works and present important ones from the past. In this role, AAADT is an acknowledged treasure of American modern dance choreography, having produced over 200 works by more than 70 choreographers.
The list includes works by Katherine Dunham, Talley Beatty, Ulysses Dove, Karole Armitage, George Faison, Uri Sands, Elisa Monte, Donald Byrd, Twyla Tharp, Garth Fagan, Robert Battle, Jiri Kylian, Wayne McGregor, Ohad Naharin, and Paul Taylor.
This eagerly anticipated return of Artistic Director Robert Battle’s first creation for Ailey is a modern day Rite of Spring with an abstract twist—an electrifying thrill ride through ritual and folk tradition. Battle’s uninhibited movement melds seamlessly with an original score for string quartet and percussion by his frequent collaborator John Mackey.
George Faison’s “Movin' On”
“Movin' On” is a work about letting go of the old and embracing the new and unknown.
For this internationally renowned ballet, Tony Award-winning choreographer and former member of AAADT George Faison uses the vocal stylings of the celebrated jazz artist Betty Carter to paint a picture of those who recognize their differences in attitudes and life, but “move on” in spite of it all.
The piece’s vibrantly strong energy colors each step of the groundbreaking choreography, elevating the ballet to its current position in the company’s repertoire.
Donald Byrd's fifth Ailey commission draws on the Company's theatrical roots and legacy of addressing social injustice. The work's title references a 1921 tragedy that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma's segregated Greenwood District. At the time, it was one of the country's most affluent African American communities, known as "Black Wall Street."On May 30, 1921, an incident occurred in the elevator of a Greenwood office building; nobody truly knows what happened, but a young Black man was arrested for attempted assault on a White teenaged girl. The next day, a newspaper report about the arrest incited an armed White mob, and things quickly escalated.Over the next day, the mob grew in size and burned much of the neighborhood to the ground, killing as many as 300 Black people, and leaving another 10,000 homeless. Afterwards, the Tulsa Race Massacre was quickly erased from the nation’s memory, but the story has resurfaced in recent years in anticipation of the event’s centennial in 2021.
Tony Award winner Twyla Tharp’s exuberant ballet is full of breathtaking leaps and finely-honed partnering. Set to a new wave rock score by David Byrne, it offers “dancing of astonishing beauty and power” (The New Yorker). "...The choreography is Miss Tharp at her best. Her own vocabulary is expanded, whiplash flinging becomes daring and the partnering is out of this world" (The New York Times).Originally performed as the finale of The Catherine Wheel, a full-length evening of dance performed at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in 1981, 'The Golden Section' (named for the gilded athletic outfits worn by the dancers) was first performed as a stand-alone excerpt about two years after the Broadway production, and the Ailey company first performed it in 2006.
Judith Jamison's stunning, Emmy Award-winning 1993 tribute to Alvin Ailey uses explosive, full company dances and quiet solos to illuminate Ailey's humanity and the dancers unique qualities. Narrative recollections from dancers are arranged by the multi-talented actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who appeared live onstage with the Company at select performances.
The AAADT continues to break new ground, and to explore contemporary issues via dance.
NPR reported in “An 'Ode' To Victims Of Gun Violence — From Alvin Ailey Dancers”:
There are no gunshots in Ode. But it does begin with one dancer lying motionless on the floor, as a piano plays stark, detached chords.
The dancer gets up and is eventually joined by five other dancers, in flowing, circular motions. They dance together as an ensemble, but then one dancer falls and crumples to the floor. He's picked up by another dancer, but then two of them fall.
"The inspiration for the piece was a couple of years ago when there was this long stint of what appeared to be racially biased shootings by the police," says Jamar Roberts, who created this dance. "And that really disturbed me. And that really stayed with me for a very long time. And I started to think about what does it mean? What does it mean to me? What does it say about our world? What does it say about our community?"
Tonight, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will premiere Ode. Roberts, the first resident choreographer for the Ailey company, describes it "as an ode to gun violence in America," and says it was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and others.
Preview Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s December season at New York City Center, which includes the world premiere of "Ode" by Jamar Roberts, Ailey’s first resident choreographer. This new work reflects on the beauty and fragility of life in a time of growing gun violence, set to jazz pianist Don Pullen’s tribute to Malcolm X, "Suite (Sweet) Malcolm." Ailey’s acclaimed dancers performed highlights and Artistic Director Robert Battle participated in a discussion with Roberts, Donald Byrd and Stefanie Batten Bland, moderated by Marina Harss.
You don’t have to be in New York City to experience the Ailey magic. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s upcoming tour schedule through May 10, 2020, will bring it to the following cities: Washington, D.C.; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; Iowa City, Iowa; Dallas, Texas: Los Angeles, California; Palm Desert, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Berkeley, California; Seattle, Washington; San Antonio, Texas; Houston, Texas; Amherst, Massachusetts; Boston, Massachusetts; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Newark, New Jersey.
Thank you, Alvin Ailey.
We will dance on.