Alvin Ailey, Jr. (January 5, 1931 – December 1, 1989) was an African American modern dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey was a gifted creator of dance expressing the African American cultural experience and history. His choreographic works live on in performances by the company he founded. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured extensively and regularly in Europe and Asia during Ailey's lifetime, making Ailey a familiar name worldwide. His works continue to inspire, uplift, educate, and communicate brilliance to all who witness them. One of his best known works, the choreographic masterpiece, Revelations, based on Ailey's experience growing up as an African American in the South, consistently brings audiences to their feet in enthusiastic, spontaneous ovation.
Ailey was born to his 17-year-old mother, Lula Cooper, in Rogers, Texas. His father abandoned the family when Alvin was only a few months old. Ailey's mother was determined to make a better life for herself and child. She moved numerous times in Ailey's early years. One of the constants in Alvin's childhood was attendance at the True Vine Baptist Church. His mother sang in the choir. Ailey's immersion in the experience of charismatic and enthusiastic worship filled with gospel music and traditional spiritual songs had a lasting affect. Later in life, he choreographed dances to some of the music he first heard as a churchgoing youngster.
In 1943, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, California. Alvin was fourteen years old then. His mother worked often. The teen used his freedom after school to explore the city. Ailey was drawn to the music from the big band jazz clubs while the musicians practiced for their evening shows. He was also drawn to the theater marquees announcing upcoming shows like Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, and others.
One day he spotted a handbill with a photo of Katherine Dunham, a dancer costumed in layers and layers of ruffles. At the time, Dunham's dance troupe was the only group of dancers touring and performing dances from Africa, Haiti, and Latin America. Ailey's curiosity was so intense that he found himself peeking in the stage door to catch sight of the performance of Dunham's Tropical Revue. This was the beginning of Ailey's lifelong passion for dance.
Alvin began hanging around the stage door of the theater during the run of Dunham's show. He was there so often that one of the dancers invited him backstage and into the auditorium to watch. This introduction led him to study dance.
Initially, Alvin took dance classes in the style and method of choreographer and dancer Katherine Dunham, from a student of hers. However, he was not really comfortable with this style that involved abandoning oneself to sensuous full body movement.
Later, he was introduced to dance teacher Lester Horton. Horton had a dance school in nearby in Hollywood and his style was more straightforward. After seeing the school performance of fellow Jefferson High School student and Horton protege, Carmen de Lavallade, Alvin signed on with Horton. Lavallade was to be a lifelong friend and colleague of Ailey's.
While studying with Horton, Ailey pursued college courses in the Romance languages. At various times Ailey was enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles City College, and the University of California, Berkeley. He studied the writings of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Carson McCullers.
His scholarly pursuits led him away from Lester Horton's school. In late summer of 1951, Ailey left for San Francisco to work and go to school. He soon befriended a young singer and dancer by the name of Margareurite Angelos (Maya Angelou). The two worked up a nightclub act called "Al and Rita." They performed occasionally, and Ailey earned a living waiting tables and dancing at the New Orleans Champagne Supper Club. It was here that he first began choreographing acts of his own. This experience also marked the end of his college pursuits.
Near the end of 1953, Ailey returned to Los Angeles and settle into a routine as a Horton dancer. Lester Horton welcomed him into his company as a part of the chorus. He soon found a spot in Horton's choreographer's workshop group, an apprenticeship group. Soon thereafter, Alvin choreographed his first formal concert dance, Afternoon Blues, set to music from the Broadway show, On the Town.
Ailey took in every aspect of Horton's work process took inspiration from performances by dancers Carmen de Lavallade and James Truitte. Ailey was fascinated by Horton's choreography, which consisted of theater pieces based on pictures by Paul Klee, poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, music by Duke Ellington and Igor Stravinsky. Jack Cole, a leading Hollywood choreographer of the time, danced in Horton performances and Ailey had the opportunity to study Cole's work as well.
By the end of 1953, Lester Horton and his company had experienced a level of success. A small group of Horton dancers had performed at the reputation-making Ninety-second Street Young Men's Christian Association in New York City and a dance festival in Massachussetts. The company was invited to perform in Hollywood. But the effort and energy left Lester Horton sick and exhausted. He died of a massive heart attack on November 2, 1953.
When Lester Horton died, 22-year-old Ailey was chosen to fill the shoes of his mentor. He became the director and resident choreographer for the Lester Horton Dance Theater. Within one year he choreographed three original dances for Horton's company: Creation of the World, According to St. Francis, and Mourning Morning. In addition, Ailey was pressed into service as a dance instructor by Horton's partner, Frank Eng, the manager of the company. Ailey's productions were met with mixed reviews by critics, but for the most part as good or better than reviews of Horton's shows.
During summer of 1954, a group of Horton dancers returned by invitation to Ted Shawn's summer dance festival in Massachusetts. Although they got poor reviews, contacts were made. The Horton company was invited to audition for television work. One of the people watching the audition was producer Arnold Saint Subber who was then working on the Broadway musical, House of Flowers, by Truman Capote. George Balanchine was the choreographer. Saint Subber expressed interest in Ailey but he declined and returned to Los Angeles.
Saint Subber tracked Ailey down in Los Angeles and asked him and Carmen de Lavallade to join the show because Balanchine had been fired. Herbert Ross, the new choreographer, wanted the two as featured dancers. This time, Alvin and Carmen accepted the offer and moved to New York. Although Ailey promised to return to Los Angeles, he never did.
Through his involvement in House of Flowers, Ailey's life changed. This was an all black cast with many stars. He met Langston Hughes and many others as a result of his involvement. New York was ripe with opportunities for dance. He took dance lessons at Katherine Dunham's school as well as from Martha Graham. He studied choreography from some of the founding choreographers of modern dance. It was a creative and promising time.
Ailey worked with House of Flowers through most of 1955. When it closed, he taught modern dance classes. In addition, he took advantage of the cultural opportunities in New York; films, poetry, new music and of course, dance. At the same time, the civil rights movement was awakening. Alvin's reality growing up as a black youngster in the south was being replayed in headlines of the newspapers.
By the late 1950's, Ailey was teaching dance seriously and had developed a strong following of students. One of Ailey's students, Marilyn (Mickey) Bord began volunteering to help him register his students as they arrived for class. Bord also took on the task of helping less advanced students and became a lifelong friend, eventually spending endless hours volunteering for Ailey's company.
Near the end of 1957, a new musical, Jamaica, was in the planning stages. The choreographer was Ailey's idol, Jack Cole. Alvin dedicated himself to creating a duet for the audition with friend and fellow dancer, Cristyne Lawson that was consistent with Cole's style. Cole chose the pair to head the dance brigade. The performance ran for eighteen months with Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban featured as the main attractions.
Horne encouraged the cast to use the stage for their own work and practice when it was not in use. Alvin took the opportunity to organize dancers to practice his work.
Ailey and his friend, Ernest Parnham, split the rental cost for the Kaufman Concert Hall at the Ninety-second Street YMCA for a show on March 30th, 1958. Ailey and Parnham gathered a group of dancers and set about the process of putting together a show. The dancers practiced several days a week for three to four hours a day starting in September of 1957. Ailey's intensity of focus was evident. It was clear to him that dance was a way to communicate with his audience. Ailey, always intensely private, communicated through dance, emotions and more that he was unable to express any other way.
Friends rallied to support the effort. Mickey Bord offered to help and soon found herself scouring thrift shops and discount stores for costume needs. The day of the concert, the hall filled largely with friends, colleagues and the YMCA's knowledgeable dance audience. Lena Horne was there adding glamor to the mood. The audience was politely appreciative of the first two performances, Trajectories and Ode and Homage. But for the third, Blues Suite enthusiasm exploded. Following the performance there was curtain call after curtain call. It was the birth of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Nine months later, Ailey booked another date at the YMCA.
Ailey started his own dance company in 1958, featuring primarily African American dancers. The company was invited back to Ted Shawn's summer dance festival in Massachusetts, in the summer of 1959. Following the stint, Susan Pimsleur, a concert manager offered to add the Ailey dancers to her roster. She laid out a plan for tours and concerts and designed a brochure, calling the company the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
A third concert at the 92nd Street YMCA was planned for January 31, 1960. It was during this performance that Ailey first staged his signature work, Revelations. The piece came from a very deep place within Ailey's psyche. The performance was an intense expression of heavenly faith, earthly despair, and unquenchable humanity. From its very first performance that January day, the audience jumped to their feet with a resounding ovation. The producer of the dance program at the YMCA finally went on to the stage to silence the audience and announce that due to the overwhelming response of the audience, a second performance would be scheduled, an unprecedented fro that venue.
In 1961, the United States Department of State approached Ailey, and invited him to travel in Southeast Asia for a thirteen week tour produced by the President's Special International Program for Cultural Presentations. Ailey accepted the invitation. He gathered dancers including some from his Horton days, including de Lavallade, Truitte and others. This was the first of many successful tours by the company. In a three years, Ailey had created a company and a body of work that communicated powerfully and conveyed to the world the beauty and universality of art and its rightful place in American culture. Alvin wrote in program notes for one of the tours, "The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America's richest treasures."
Ailey integrated his dance company in 1963. He also did some acting and directing. One notable production he directed was Langston Hughes's Jericho-Jim Crow (1964). In summer of 1965, Ailey spotted Judith Jamison, a strikingly tall dancer with a strong foundation in ballet, at an audition he was attending. Ailey saw something special in her and tracked her down to invite her to join the company. She accepted, and today it is Jamison who runs the AAADT.
Alvin Ailey was born to a teen-aged single mother. His father was never a presence in his life. During his childhood, his mother worked hard to earn a meager living. The two moved often. As a youngster, Ailey often had to fend for himself after school while his mother worked. His was not an easy life. Perhaps Alvin became used to being alone and that influenced his intensely private nature, or perhaps that was his personality. As early as his high school years Alvin was conflicted about his sexuality. He dated girls but found himself attracted to boys. This was an internal conflict that Ailey never overcame but never totally accepted about himself.
When Alvin was a young adult, his mother married and eventually had a son, Calvin. This new family was hard a difficult adjustment for Ailey. He never became part of the new family, he was just getting established with the Lester Horton Dance Theater and his work and life consumed him. Not long afterward, Ailey moved to New York. Ultimately, Ailey had at least two long term relationships with men. It was not something he felt comfortable about in public. Ailey never married, nor did he have children. His dancers were his family and his life. He kept his private life completely separate from his public life.
Presented around the world by the Ailey's dance theater, the choreographic masterpiece Revelations, which is based on Ailey's experience growing up as an African American in the South, is among the best known and most frequently seen of modern dance performances. This piece 'speaks' to audiences of all stripes in such a profound and inspiring way that audiences often leap to their feet in ovation at the close of the performance. It is a timeless portrayal of the experience of the American south of the first half of the twentieth century.
Ailey has been memorialized by the renaming of West 61st Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues in New York City as "Alvin Ailey Way;" the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was located on that block at 211 West 61st Street from 1989 until 2005, when it moved to a new, bigger facility at the corner of West 55th Street and Ninth Avenue.
In 1987, Ailey received the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. The citation on the award read, "To Alvin Ailey, dancer teacher and choreographer, whose work is generated from the heart and powered by passion; he stands as a model of artistic integrity. An American, informed by the Black experience, Mr. Ailey's choreography presses through cultural lines and speaks a universal language. His dances, whether sassy, sad, witty or lyrical, have brought joy and a sense of purpose to people throughout the world. Alvin Ailey's consistent artistic achievements have insured him a place as a giant in the history of American modern dance." His longtime friend, Harry Belafonte presented the award. Ailey was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988.
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