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Alvin Ailey - More Resources

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)

by Thomas F. DeFranz

Alvin Ailey, the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (1958-), galvanized and stabilized an African American presence in theatrical dance. An outstanding performer, choreographer, company director, and mentor to scores of dance artists, Ailey oversaw the growth of his small, pick-up group of seven dancers into a large, carefully managed, internationally-renowned enterprise including several ensembles of dancers and a thriving school in New York City housed in the largest building devoted to dance in the United States. Along the way, Ailey changed the landscape of modern dance by developing new audiences for its performance through a consistent combination of exceptional artistry and wellcoordinated community outreach programs. In all, Ailey invigorated the art of dance with his distinctive creative imagination, his “blood memories” of cultural formations he witnessed as a child-- including the jook joint and the black church --and the strong survivalist ethic he learned as an African American man born in the depression-era South.

Emergence into Dance

Born in Rogers, Texas, the only child of workingclass parents who separated when he was two, Ailey moved with his mother to Los Angeles 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. In dance, he found the terms of self-expression that high school athletics failed to provide. He poured himself into studying it and developed a weighty, smoldering performance style that suited his athletic body. Horton’s progressive, multiracial studio and performance company imbued in Ailey the importance of research and preparation for rehearsal, alongside the essentials of lighting design, music awareness, costuming, and storytelling in choreography.

Early Career

Ailey moved to New York in 1954 to dance with partner Carmen De Lavallade in the Broadway production of House of Flowers. During this incredibly optimistic era, New York dancers often matched personal expression with accessible, theatrical storytelling. Ailey worked with the leading choreographers and dancers of the time, but decided to create his own company with three guiding principles: to employ the scores of excellent black dancers in New York who had no home base for performing; to create a racially integrated repertory company that could perform both modern dance classics and new works by himself and other young choreographers; and to give artistic voice to African American experience in terms of concert dance. His achievement in each of these areas deserves note. The Ailey company continues to be the premiere site of theatrical African American dance artistry, performing a varied repertory of works, many of which speak of black life.

The group’s 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. From its early performances, Revelations (1960) 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, 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." As of 2012, Revelations has been seen by some 23,000,000 people worldwide - more viewers than any other modern dance work in history.

Artistic Range

Ailey's large and varied output of more than seventy-five works includes ballets on pointe, modern dances, and staging for television and musical theater. His broad tastes in music and literature are reflected in the diversity of his productions, which range in theme from sketches of monastic isolation danced to music by Samuel Barber sung by Leontyne Price (Hermit Songs, 1961) through unfettered explorations of the qualities of beauty set to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams (The Lark Ascending, 1972) to jazz-inspired group romps set to hard-swinging music by Duke Ellington (Night Creature, for “Ailey Celebrates Ellington” television program, 1974). For each dance he made, Ailey created a notebook of thematic sketches, character descriptions, drawings of proposed settings and costuming, casting ideas, and an outline of the counts to the music. These notebooks, held by the Black Archives of MidAmerica, offer rare insight into the creative imagination of an artist known to be somewhat taciturn in the rehearsal hall. While Ailey seldom discussed themes or the intention of his movement ideas with dancers, he prepared rigorously for rehearsals, and always trusted his high musical intuition to inspire the creation of movement.

The Ailey Company

The Ailey company receives acclaim for its artistic excellence as well as the vitality of its educational and community operations. In 1989 the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. initiated the Ailey Camps program in Kansas City. This outreach program is designed to enhance the self-esteem, creative expression, and critical thinking skills of youth through dance. Success of the initial venture led to similar programs in Atlanta, Newark, New York City, Baltimore, Berkeley, California, Boston, Chicago, and Miami. The Ailey Foundation also created a strong network of “Friends” around the United States, organizations of supporters who sponsor community events that include the performing arts. As a financially solvent arts organization operating in the twenty-first century, the Ailey company offers a valuable model for expressive commerce and creativity in black American life. Shrewd business management combined with an extraordinary artistic achievement have allowed the Ailey operation to achieve an unprecedented celebrity as dance ambassadors steeped in African American cultural processes, and available to a world audience.

Honors

Ailey received many distinctions and awards, including honorary doctorates in fine arts from Princeton University, Bard College, Adelphi University, and Cedar Crest College; a United Nations Peace Medal, and an NAACP Springarn 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. But the living legacy of the company that bears his name may be Ailey’s greatest contribution to us all. After his death, the Ailey company was directed by dancer Judith Jamison from 1989-2011; Robert Battle took on the directorship in 2011. In 1983, speaking at the occasion of his company's twenty-fifth anniversary, Ailey described his original objective in creating work: "I wanted to explore black culture, and I wanted that culture to be a revelation." Surely he achieved this ambition, and surely we are all the better for it.


Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor of Dance and African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the editor of Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (2002) and the author of Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (2004). He directs the dance history and theory program at the Hollins University/American Dance Festival MFA Program. A tap dancer and theater director, for many years he organized the dance history program at the Alvin Ailey School.

 

Books & Articles

Ailey, Alvin with A. Peter Bailey. Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. Replica Books, 2000.

DeFrantz, Thomas. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. Oxford University Press, 2004.

DeFrantz, Thomas. “Composite Bodies of Dance: The Repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,” in Theatre Journal - Volume 57, Number 4, December 2005, pp. 659-678.

Dunning, Jennifer. Alvin Ailey: A Life. Da Capo Press, 1998.

Online Resources

The company website www.alvinailey.org includes many high-quality video excerpts, and an excellent company overview in images and digital ephemeral documents.

Archives

The Alvin Ailey archives are held by both the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC, and at the Black Archives of Mid-America, in Kansas City, MO. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Collection at the Library of Congress contains correspondence, writings, music, publicity and production materials, programs, teaching materials, business papers, scrapbooks, news clippings, publications, costume and set designs, photographs, and drawings.

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