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Alvin Ailey
Born: January 5, 1931
Died: December 1, 1989
Occupation: dancer, choreographer
Born in Rogers, Texas, the only child of working-class parents who separated when he was two, Ailey moved to Los Angeles with his mother 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. He poured himself into study and developed a weighty, smoldering performance style that suited his athletic body. Ailey moved to New York in 1954 to dance with partner Carmen DeLavallade in the Broadway production of "House of Flowers." Performing success and study with leading modern dance and ballet teachers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Karel Shook led Ailey to found his own dance theater company in 1958. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) began as a repertory company of seven dancers devoted to both modern dance classics and new works created by Ailey and other young artists. The critically successful first concerts in 1958 and 1960 marked the beginning of a new era of dance performance devoted to African-American theme. "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 20th-century social dances, Horton dance technique, Jack Cole-inspired jazz dance, and ballet partnering. Early performances of "Revelations" (1960) established Ailey's company as the foremost dance interpreter of African-American experience. The dance 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 arranged by Brother John Sellers, "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."

Several Ailey dances established precedents for American dance. "Feast of Ashes" (1962), created for the Harkness Ballet, is acknowledged as the first successful "pointe" ballet choreographed by a modern dancer. In 1966 Ailey contributed dances for the New York Metropolitan Opera's inaugural production at Lincoln Center, Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra." In 1970 he created "The River" for American Ballet Theatre. Set to an original score commissioned from Duke Ellington, this ballet convincingly fused theatrical jazz dancing and ballet technique. In 1971 Ailey created the staging for Leonard Bernstein's rock-influenced "Mass", which opened the newly built Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Major distinctions and honors followed Ailey throughout his choreographic career, which spanned the creation of more than 50 dances for his own company, American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, the London Festival Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet. Among his many awards were honorary doctorates in fine arts from Princeton University, Bard College, Adelphi University, and Cedar Crest College; a United Nations Peace Medal, and an NAACP Spingarn 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.


In its earliest years, the AAADT spent much time on the road, touring and bringing dance to a large audience of people who had never heard of concert performance. This largely African-American audience has provided the wellspring of support essential to the Ailey enterprise. The AAADT established its vast international reputation through a series of tours begun in 1962 by a five-month engagement in Southeast Asia and Australia. Sponsored by the International Exchange Program under the Kennedy administration, this tour established a pattern of performance in foreign countries that continued with a trip to Rio de Janeiro (1963); a European tour including London, Hamburg, and Paris (1964); an engagement at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal (1966); a 16-week European tour, including the Holland Festival in Amsterdam (1967); a visit to Israel (August 1967); a U.S. State Department-sponsored nine-nation tour of Africa (1967); and a performance at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland (1968). In 1970 the AAADT became the first American modern dance company to perform in the postwar Soviet Union. The company has retained peerless stature as a touring ambassador of goodwill since the 1970s; high points have included a prize-winning performance at the International Dance Festival in Paris (1970); a second Far East tour (1977); a Brazil tour (1978); and several command performances for heads of state and royalty. By 1989, the AAADT had been seen by some 15 million people worldwide.

Active in the pursuit of dance history, the varied repertory of the AAADT has, in Ailey's words, sustained an "impulse to preserve modern dance to know where it's been in order to know where it's going, and to encourage the participation of the audience" in that process. The eclectic repertory has been provided by choreographers working in a variety of dance modes, including ballet, jazz dance, Graham modern, Horton, and Dunham technique. Important pieces danced by the company have included Donald McKayle's "Rainbow Round My Shoulder" (1959), Talley Beatty's "The Road of the Phoebe Snow" (1959), Anna Sokolow's "Rooms" (1965), Louis Johnson's "Lament" (1965), Geoffrey Holder's "Prodigal Prince" (1967), Ulysses Dove's "Vespers" (1986), Judith Jamison's Forgotten Time (1989), and Donald Byrd's "Dance at the Gym" (1991), as well as dances by venerable American choreographers Ted Shawn, Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham, Joyce Trisler, and Lester Horton. In 1976 the AAADT celebrated composer Duke Ellington with a festival featuring 15 new ballets set to his music, a project that highlighted Ellington's musical achievement.


Ailey encouraged his dancers to present individualized and highly emotional performances, a strategy that created the first series of star personalities in American modern dance. Judith Jamison's electrifying performance of "Cry" presented a coherent relationship between the dancing body and the experience of living as a black woman in America. Created in 1971 as a birthday present for Ailey's mother, Lula Cooper, "Cry" has been successfully assumed by several dancers, most notably Donna Wood, Renee Robinson, Sara Yarborough, and Nasha Thomas. In 1972, Ailey created the elegiac solo "Love Songs" for dancer Dudley Williams, revived in 1993 by dancer Michael Joy. Dancer Gary DeLoatch, a longtime principal with the company, brought an eloquent intensity to his roles, especially as the pusher in Talley Beatty's "The Stack-Up" (1983) and as Charlie Parker in Ailey's "For 'Bird'-- With Love" (1984). Innumerable significant dance personalities have passed through the AAADT, including Marilyn Banks, Hope Clarke, Carmen DeLavallade, George Faison, Miguel Godreau, Dana Hash, Linda Kent, Desmond Richardson, Kelvin Rotardier, Elizabeth Roxas, Clive Thompson, James Truitte, Andre Tyson, and Sylvia Waters.


In 1969 Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center School to educate dance students in the history and art of ballet and modern dance. Courses have been offered in dance technique and history, music for dancers, dance composition, and theatrical design. In 1974 the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, a professional performance ensemble, was formed under the direction of Sylvia Waters as a bridge between study and membership in professional dance companies. In 1984 the Alvin Ailey Student Performance Group was created under the direction of Kelvin Rotardier. The Student Performance Group has offered lecture-demonstrations to communities traditionally underserved by the arts. In 1989 Dance Foundation Inc., the umbrella organizations for the AAADT and the Ailey School, initiated the Ailey Camps program, an outreach program designed to "enhance the self-esteem, creative expression, and critical thinking skills of inner-city youth through dance." Success of the initial venture in Kansas City, Missouri, led to similar programs begun in New York City (1990) and Baltimore, Md. (1992).

Ailey created the AAADT to feature the talents of his African-American colleagues, though the company was never exclusively black. Ailey integrated his company to counter the "reverse chauvinism in being an all-black anything." He told the NEW YORK TIMES, "I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings and that color is not important. What is important is the quality of our work." In the last interview conducted before his death, he commented that the essence of the Ailey enterprise was that "the dancers be fed, kept alive, interested" in the work. "We're trying to create a whole spectrum of experience for the dancer as well as the audience," he said, dramatically understating the realities of his achievements.

Ailey stopped dancing in 1965 and slowed his choreographic assignments in the 1970s to attend to the administrative and fund-raising operations associated with his ever expanding company. Upon Ailey's death, Judith Jamison was appointed artistic director of the company, to work closely with rehearsal director and longtime company member Masazumi Chaya. The AAADT finally emerged from financial difficulties in 1992, when DANCE MAGAZINE proclaimed it "recession-proof" due to powerful development efforts on the part of the Dance Foundation Inc.'s board of directors.

Although Ailey gave numerous interviews throughout his career, he was decidedly private about his personal life. He described himself as "a bachelor and a loner" to writer John Gruen and hardly ever allowed outsiders into his most private thoughts. In 1980 Ailey was briefly hospitalized for stress-related conditions. His death followed a long, solitary struggle that had taken him out of the limelight for some time. Ailey's legacy to the dance world was to foster a freedom of choice--from ballet, modern, and social dance performance -- to best express humanity in movement terms suited to the theatrical moment.

-- Thomas F. DeFrantz

Emery, Lynne Fauley. BLACK DANCE IN THE UNITED STATES FROM 1619 TO 1970. Palo Alto, Calif., 1972.
Goodman, Saul. "Brief Biographies: Alvin Ailey." DANCE MAGAZINE (December 1958): 70.
Gruen, John. "Interview with Alvin Ailey." Transcript of interview, collection of New York Public Library, 1972.
Latham, Jacqueline Quinn. "A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists -- Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey." Texas Women's University diss., 1973.
Mazo, Joseph H., and Susan Cook. THE ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER. New York, 1978.
Moore, William. "Alvin Ailey (19311989)." BALLET REVIEW 17, no. 4 (1990): 1217.

Source Citation: "Alvin Ailey."ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.