Born in poverty in rural Texas, Alvin Ailey grew into a gifted choreographer who drew inspiration from African American culture. He went on to become both an American institution and a broken man.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded in New York in 1958, was named as an act of entitlement. Ailey, a black choreographer who had been born in rural Texas in 1931, where racial segregation was still in full force, was profoundly conscious of two Americas: white and black. By launching American Dance Theater with Blues Suite – a piece brimming with images from his Depression-era childhood and filled with the sound and spirit of the blues – Ailey was also staking a claim: that black America, too, could represent the country.
After moving to Los Angeles aged 11, Ailey found himself in a more racially mixed environment, and as a youngster was as inspired as much by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as by Katherine Dunham’s black dance revues. His first serious dance training was with Lester Horton, who had a multicultural melting-pot vision of modern dance. When Horton died suddenly in 1953, the precocious Ailey took over his company as choreographer and director.
In 1954 he moved to New York to appear in black musicals on Broadway. He also gathered together a group of black dancers eager to expand the roles available to them, and formed the group that went on to become the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey’s work, like the pieces by guest and commissioned choreographers, often but not always references black styles or subjects; and since the early 60s, the company has never been exclusively black.
Ailey followed the success of his 1958 concert with Revelations (1960), the masterpiece that became his signature work. Despite financial struggles, he quickly became a major force in modern dance, touring extensively and becoming popular with audiences worldwide. He set up a training school in 1969 and a youth company in 1974, both of which still go strong. But as his company went from strength to strength, Ailey’s own life suffered. He had always been secretive about his homosexuality; under pressure from his public success, in private he turned increasingly to alcohol, drugs and compulsive cruising, and suffered a mental breakdown in 1980. Ailey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (then known as manic depression). He returned to work with considerable support from the company, but despite some successes the 80s were a precarious time for him. In 1989, he died of an Aids-related illness.
Unusually for a choreographer-led group, the company lived on. Former dancer Judith Jamison took over as artistic director, and has overseen a long era of consolidation of the entire Ailey organisation. She will stand down in 2011, to be succeeded by Robert Battle.
Today, Ailey’s project has in some ways been realised: his company is an American institution, an official cultural ambassador for the nation, and part of the revolution in civil rights that saw something which would have been unthinkable in Ailey’s own lifetime – a black man in the White House.
Watching Alvin Ailey
Though his most direct stylistic influence was Lester Horton, Ailey amalgamated elements from a wide range of different dance styles into his choreography. He often said that he liked to work with a balletic lower body – articulate footwork, long extensions – and a more mobile, “modern dance” upper body. Alongside that, he added elements of jazz dance, popular, ritual and social dances, all fused into a limber and athletic presentational style.
It was not technique that moved him, though, but spirit. By no means an innovator in dance terms, he was more interested in engaging his audience emotionally and physically. His masterpiece is Revelations, the most widely seen piece of modern dance ever, which currently closes almost every programme by the Ailey company. It draws inspiration from spirituals and gospel music to create a transcendent image of the human soul – a soul that reappears elsewhere, from the aspiring spirit of Lark Ascending (1972, to Vaughan Williams’s famous score) to the famous strength-and-suffering solo, Cry (1971).
Some of his dances are inspired by music (he especially loved Duke Ellington), some by musicians: the protagonists of Flowers (1971) and For Bird – With Love (1984) were based on Janis Joplin and Charlie Parker respectively, and he must have felt deeply the rift between their public and private personae. The current company has some of the best dancers in the business: expect to be wowed, but not necessarily by the choreography – a recurrent criticism of the company (though they’re hardly alone in this) is that the dancers outclass the repertory.
Famous Ailey dancers include Carmen de Lavallade, James Truitte, Dudley Williams, Judith Jamison and Renée Robinson. More recent standouts include Matthew Rushing, Clifton Brown and Linda Celeste Sims. “Turnaround king” Michael Kaiser is credited with turning around the fortunes of the Ailey company in the early 90s.
Ailey once danced the pas de deux from Swan Lake with Erik Bruhn, one of the most famous danseurs nobles of classical ballet. It happened at a roadhouse party during a dance festival in 1961.
In his own words
“I believe that dance came from the people, and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” – Alvin Ailey
“I wanted to explore black culture, and I wanted that culture to be a revelation.” – Alvin Ailey, interview with Jennifer Dunning, New York Times 1983
“The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America’s richest treasures. From his roots as a slave, the American Negro – sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant but always hopeful – has touched, illuminated, and influenced the most remote preserves of world civilisation. I and my dance theater celebrate this trembling beauty.” – Ailey, quoted in Jennifer Dunning’s Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance (1996)
In other words
“How to adequately explain the dependably rapturous standing ovation Revelations received… The standard analysis is cliché now but true: Revelations captures the universal pain and fortitude of the African-American experience.” – Rachel Howard, San Francisco Chronicle 2009
“Ailey created a thriving cultural institution balanced on the double-edged sword of race.” – Thomas F DeFrantz, in Dancing Revelations (OUP) 2004
“Ailey choreographed the everyday experience of black people and made the world see us anew.” – Bonnie Greer, New Statesman 2010
“A spirit in the dark.”
“Madonna danced with Alvin Ailey.”
Sometimes claimed, but in fact she just took classes at the Ailey school and was briefly an apprentice in a student company there. Ailey had no recollection of her.
Black dancers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus were influences on Ailey’s style; so were white dancers Lester Horton, Martha Graham and Jack Cole. American companies and choreographers with angles on black culture include Eleo Pomare, Garth Fagan, Urban Bush Womenand Bill T Jones.
Now watch this
Rocka My Soul (archive TV footage from 1967)
Excerpts from Revelations
Cry, made for Judith Jamison in 1971
Pas de duke originally made in 1976 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Judith Jamison
Flowers, originally a vehicle for Royal Ballet star Lynn Seymour
The Lark Ascending (1982 performance)
Where to see Ailey next
See the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater website for performance dates.