Alvin Ailey

Jun 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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1931-1989  Alvin Ailey combined the spiritual music of his Baptist upbringing with a unique and revolutionary dance style to create an artistic legacy that is critically acclaimed throughout the world.

A Nomadic Childhood

Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas, on January 5, 1931. His mother, Lula, was only 16 years old when she met Alvin Ailey, Sr., and married him. Their son was born two years later. Not long afterward, Ailey’s father, unable to find work in the midst of the Great Depression, abandoned his family. Ailey’s mother struggled to support herself and her growing son. They moved often, following the seasonal jobs in the cotton fields.

When Ailey was 12, his mother decided to move to Los Angeles where she found work in an aircraft factory. Throughout his childhood, Ailey had been mesmerized by the choirs in the Baptist churches he attended with his mother, and in metropolitan Los Angeles, he was able to pursue his growing passion for music and dance. As a teenager, he often traveled alone to Central Avenue where he snuck into clubs and theaters to see popular vaudeville acts and hit movies. On a school field trip, Ailey saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He was transfixed and inspired to begin the pursuit of dance in earnest.

A mutual friend introduced Ailey to Lester Horton. Horton was a strong proponent of contemporary dance, and his school was one of the only dance academies at the time that would accept a black student. Despite his enthusiasm, Ailey was hesitant to test his own skill. He went to the Horton Studio regularly for six months to watch the dancers before he began to participate in the classes. However, unsure that he could support himself as a dancer, he ultimately decided to return to high school and work toward entering college.

After his graduation from Jefferson High School in 1948, Ailey enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles to study romance languages. But one year later, Horton offered him a scholarship to the dance school and a position in his company. Ailey danced with Horton for the next four years, rising steadily through the ranks of the company until he was one of the lead dancers. When Horton died suddenly of a heart attack in 1953, Ailey was the obvious choice to take over as artistic director. He began to choreograph works for the first time, but without Horton’s charismatic leadership, the company eventually dissolved.

Forming a Company, Founding a School

Ailey’s work with the Horton company was not overlooked. In 1955, he was given a part in a Broadway show called House of Flowers. Although his part in this production was modest, Ailey found himself thrust into the middle of New York City’s vibrant contemporary dance world. He studied with choreographers Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham. and took any small part he was given, dancing in television shows, in films, at experimental art venues, and on Broadway. Ailey also pursued opportunities to showcase his own choreography, debuting his first work in 1958 at the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association. This first production included “Blues Suite,” which drew on the music and characters of the Texas communities he had traveled through as a child.

“Blues Suite” was widely praised by critics, and gave Ailey the confidence and support needed to continue developing and staging his own works. In his third production at the 92nd Street Y, Ailey premiered “Revelations,” a piece that would secure his position as one of the foremost choreographers in America. Set to music by Duke Ellington, “Revelations” employs a small group of dancers all dressed in shades of brown and gold. Throughout the piece’s duration, both the dancers and the music slowly gain emotional intensity, coming to a final climax with Ellington’s stirring interpretation of the spiritual “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.”

The success of Ailey’s productions at the 92nd Street Y led to the creation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. In its original form, the company was comprised of eight African American dancers. However, with its immediate popularity and demanding performance schedule, the company quickly grew to include white and Asian dancers by the mid-1960s. The company traveled extensively, performing in Australia, Asia, Brazil, Europe, and Africa. By 1969, Ailey had established a dance school and a repertory in addition to the full company.

Throughout this period, Ailey retreated from performing himself, and threw his creative energy into choreography. In addition to the works he created for his own company, he also worked with the Joffrey Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. Ailey collaborated with black musicians such as Duke Ellington, and organized benefit concerts to raise money and awareness for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

By the 1970s, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was one of the most popular dance companies in the world. In 1971, after a critically acclaimed premiere of the solo “Cry,” which Ailey choreographed for Judith Jamison, it took up residence in the famous City Center Theater in New York City. Through symbolic gestures, “Cry” narrates the passage from slavery to emancipation, and culminates in a joyful dance to the popular song “Right On, Be Free.” Despite his continued success, the physical pressure and demands on Ailey were intense. In 1980, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for several weeks. He began to withdraw from the company, choreographing only a few new pieces during the 1980s. On December 1, 1989, Ailey died of dyscrasia, a blood disorder associated with AIDS.

Thousands of people attended his memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York to celebrate Ailey’s life and career as a founder of the American contemporary dance movement. During his lifetime, he was the recipient of several significant honors including the Spingarn Medal, the United Nations Peace Award, and a Kennedy Center Award.

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