January 5, 1931– Alvin Ailey:
Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.
I am savvier about Dance than most civilians because I once had a boyfriend who was a professional dancer. I appreciated his flexibility.
Alvin Ailey had an important impact on the American Arts scene, despite struggling against racial discrimination, mental illness, and constant internal conflict over his gayness.
Ailey was born in a small town in Texas. Apprehensive and artistic, he was uncomfortably aware of his attraction to other boys at an early age, but his strapping body and tough demeanor spared him from some of the usual harassment suffered by little gay boys.
He moved with his mother to Los Angeles when he was 12-years-old. In California, he proved to be an athletically gifted student with a special knack for learning foreign languages. He would perform a talented imitation of Gene Kelly, but Ailey did not actually see a live dance performance until a class trip to a performance by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He became really hooked after catching a performance by dancer/activist Katherine Dunham, whose program gave Ailey his first look at African-American dancers.
He began studying with famed choreographer Lester Horton, who had created the first racially integrated dance company in the USA. Horton was inspired by Native American Dance and Japanese Theatre. Ailey attended San Francisco State University with the idea of becoming a teacher, but he continued to dance, performing in a nightclub revue with a young dancer named Maya Angelou. Eventually, he chose to leave school and to join Horton’s troupe. After Horton’s passing in 1953, Ailey was named director of his company.
A year later, he got a job dancing on Broadway in the musical version of Truman Capote‘s House Of Flowers. It ran for only a few months, but Ailey stayed in NYC to study movement with modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and acting with famed coach Stella Adler.
He was cast in the film version of the musical Carmen Jones (1954), the Broadway musical Jamaica (1957) starring Lena Horne, and he acted on Broadway in the play Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright (1962). He also began to find work as a choreographer and director. He created the dances for gay composer Samuel Barber‘s opera Antony And Cleopatra at The Metropolitan Opera‘s new home at Lincoln Center, and for gay composer Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass for the brand new Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts. His work was well-received by critics and audiences, but jobs for black dancers were scarce.
So, Ailey started his own company, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) in 1958, in part, to provide opportunities for dancers of color. In 1962, the US State Department began sponsoring AAADT on international tours. They were the first modern dance company to tour the USSR. They performed in 45 countries on six continents. Ailey was also commissioned to create new dances for other companies: American Ballet Theater, Joffrey Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, plus other smaller dance companies around the globe.
In 1963, Ailey integrated his own company, stating that he wanted to work with the most talented dancers regardless of race. He also mentored several promising young performers, including the beautiful, powerful Judith Jamison, who served as a muse and eventually succeeded Ailey as AAADT’s artistic director.
Despite his considerable professional success, Ailey’s personal life was driven by difficulties. His gayness was an open secret, yet he never publicly came out of the closet and rarely spoke of his personal relationships. He had one long romantic relationship with a young white schoolteacher who helped manage AAADT, but Ailey had many liaisons with young men who his friends felt took advantage of his generosity. He suffered from bipolar disorder, which worsened over time, as did his drinking and cocaine use. Ailey had a nervous breakdown in 1980, and had to be hospitalized.
In the 1950s, Ailey had a romantic relationship with noted Pacifist/Socialist activist David McReynolds, who in 1968, became the first openly gay person to run for President.
In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS struck hard in NYC’s dance world. Ailey became infected with the virus and although increasingly sick, he continued traveling to oversee productions of his works and receive awards. Ailey took that final curtain call in 1989, finally taken by the plague.
In Ailey’s memory, a stretch of West 61st Street is renamed Alvin Ailey Way. But, his greatest legacy is his dance company. AAADT is still going strong with concerts and classes. They have performed for more than 40 million people.
We talk too much of black art when we should be talking about art, just art. Black composers must be free to write rondos and fugues, not only protest songs. I use Duke Ellington and I want to use more of his music, but its music, not black music.
Ailey’s earliest and most acclaimed work is Revelations. It continues to be performed by major international dance companies today. That work from 55 years ago, celebrates African-American spirituals, gospel music and small-town religion. Ailey:
Its roots are in American Negro culture, which is part of the whole country’s heritage. But, the dance speaks to everyone, otherwise it wouldn’t work.
Fox Searchlight is currently in preproduction on a film about the life story of Ailey based Jennifer Dunning‘s biography Alvin Ailey: A Life In Dance (1996), produced by Alicia Keys.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture houses the Jack Mitchell Ailey Collection, spanning the over 30-year collaboration between Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Jack Mitchell. Mitchell earned his living as a photographer starting at 15-years-old. He moved to New York City in 1950, and at the suggestion of modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, he concentrated on photographing dance and dancers.