Born in Rogers, Texas on January 5, 1931, Alvin Ailey spent his formative years going to Sunday School and participating in The Baptist Young People's Union - experiences that would later inspire some of Ailey's most memorable works, including the acclaimed Revelations. At age twelve, he moved to Los Angeles and, on a junior high school class trip to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, fell in love with concert dance. Ailey began his formal dance training inspired by the performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the classes with Lester Horton that his friend, Carmen de Lavallade, urged him to take. Horton, the founder of the first racially integrated dance company in the US, was a catalyst for Ailey as the young dancer embarked on his professional career. After Horton's death in 1953, Ailey became the director of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and began to choreograph his own works. In 1954, he and Carmen de Lavallade were invited to New York to dance in the Broadway show House of Flowers by Truman Capote. In New York, Ailey studied with many outstanding dance artists, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm and Karel Shook, and took acting classes with Stella Adler. A versatile performer, Ailey won a number of acting roles while continuing to choreograph and dance professionally. In 1958, Ailey founded his own company, the Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater, which made its debut at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York. Ailey's vision was to create a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of black cultural expression. In 1960, he choreographed Revelations, a masterpiece of American modern dance and a signature piece in the Ailey repertory, based on the religious heritage of his youth. The Company's early years were shaped by the talents of dancers such as Minnie Marshall, Thelma Hill, Loretta Abbott, Joan Peters, Kelvin Rotardier, Liz Williamson, Nat Horne, Myrna White and James Truitte.
During the Company's first decade, Ailey created approximately twenty new ballets, among them Hermit Songs (1961) and Reflections in D (1962). These were followed by The River (1970), The Lark Ascending (1972), Love Songs (1972), Hidden Rites (1973), Night Creature (1974), The Mooche (1975), Memoria (1979), Landscape (1981), For "Bird" - With Love (1984), Survivors (1986), Witness (1986) and Opus McShann (1988). Although he created some seventy-nine ballets, Ailey maintained that the Company was not a repository for his work exclusively. The Company's varied repertory includes works by dance pioneers as well as emerging, young choreographers. More than 180 works by sixty-seven choreographers have been performed by the Company in its forty-year history. Since its inception, the Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater has performed for an estimated 19,000,000 people in forty-eight states, sixty-eight countries and on six continents, earning the Company a reputation as one of the most popular international ambassadors of American culture.
In 1965, Ailey discovered an extraordinarily talented young dancer named Judith Jamison, whose brilliant dancing and creative style provided the inspiration for a number of Ailey works, including Cry, his best known solo piece. Cry was created as a tribute to Ailey's mother and was dedicated to "all Black women everywhere - especially our mothers." Ailey ballets have appeared in the repertories of major dance companies, including American Ballet Theatre, The Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Paris Opera Ballet and La Scala Ballet.
In 1969, Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, with an initial enrollment of 125 students. Today under the direction of Denise Jefferson, a prestigious faculty trains over 3,500 dance students annually from every part of the world, who contribute to a multicultural richness that is unique among dance schools.
The School offers classes from beginning through professional levels and a comprehensive curriculum that includes Horton, Dunham and Graham-based modern dance techniques, ballet, jazz, West African dance, Spanish dance, Classical Indian dance, tap and yoga classes. To help talented students make the leap from studio to stage, Ailey formed the Ailey® II (formerly Repertory Ensemble) in 1974. Under the artistic direction of former Ailey dancer Sylvia Waters, the Ailey® II (formerly Repertory Ensemble) has emerged as an acclaimed professional company in its own right.
It has won critical praise for its national tours and residencies at major colleges and universities, as well as its visits to public schools across the country.
Another component of Ailey's commitment to education has been the Company's long-standing involvement in arts-in-education programs, including free performances, mini-performances, lecture/demonstrations, workshops and master classes in communities in the US and throughout the world. Ailey® Camps, a unique national program, brings under-served youngsters to a full-scholarship summer day camp that combines dance classes with personal development workshops, creative-writing classes and field trips. Currently, there are Ailey® Camps in Kansas City, Philadelphia and New York City.
Throughout his lifetime, Alvin Ailey received recognition for his achievements. He was awarded numerous honorary doctoral degrees, including one from Princeton University. In 1976, the NAACP awarded Ailey the Springarn Medal and in 1982 he received the United Nations Peace Medal. From the world of dance, he received the 1975 Dance Magazine Award, the Capezio Award (1979) and modern dance's most prestigious prize, the Samuel H. Scripps American Festival Award in 1987. In 1988, he was honored by the Kennedy Center for his extraordinary contribution to American culture and achievement in the performing arts. Ailey died on December 1, 1989 - and with his death, American dance lost one of its most luminous stars. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times wrote of Ailey, "You didn't need to have known Ailey personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm and exuberance and his courageous stand for multiracial brotherhood." Jamison, when named Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey® American Dance Theater on December 20, 1989, said of Ailey, "Mr. Ailey's spiritual and moral support served as a constant inspiration to me as an artist. He was my spiritual walker, my mentor and support. He gave me legs until I could stand on my own, as a dancer and choreographer. I view this appointment as the course to take to continue my vision and to keep Mr. Ailey's legacy alive."
Dance Theater Foundation, Inc.