Alvin Ailey was a choreographer who established the ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’ to promote modern dance forms. He was an African-American who sought to preserve the uniqueness of his own culture and simultaneously enrich the American modern dance heritage. He was also an activist and, in his lifetime, he undertook a number of programs to promote arts, particularly benefiting deprived communities. Born into a poor family, Ailey didn’t have an easy life. He was raised during the era of racial segregation when most people of his race were forced to take sundry and minor jobs. However, fate had something else in store for Ailey. When he first enrolled himself in a dance school, he showed promise which only few could exhibit. His dance was driven by passion and enhanced by innovation. No wonder that he is credited for introducing various dance techniques which changed the course of modern dance. He even travelled to various places, not just to propagate his dance, but also to learn from the local cultures. His company even earned the nickname ‘Cultural Ambassador to the World’. In his lifetime, he achieved many honors, awards and recognitions for his contribution to the American dance culture and his efforts at fostering humanity and inter-racial brotherhood.
Childhood & Early Life
Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931, in Texas to a teenage mother Lula Elizabeth Ailey. His father abandoned the family when Alvin was only six months old.
He was born in an era when racial discrimination and violence against African-Americans was common in America. When he was five, his mother was raped by a group of white men which instilled a fear of whites in the young boy; a fear that haunted him for a long time.
In the fall of 1942, Ailey and his mother migrated to Los Angeles, California, in search of a new job for his mother. Here, Ailey was first enrolled in a junior high school which was located in a predominantly white district. Being black, he felt left out and hence, was then sent to a black school.
He graduated from the Thomas Jefferson High School in 1948 where he actively sang spirituals in the glee club and wrote poetry. After graduation, he considered becoming a teacher and attended the University of California in Los Angeles to study languages.
However, Ailey started taking dancing seriously when his school friend, Carmen De Lavallade, introduced him to the Hollywood studio of Lester Horton in 1949. It was then that he began studying modern dance with Horton.
In 1951, Alvin Ailey moved to San Francisco to continue his studies and also danced at a nightclub for a brief period and was paired with Marguerite Johnson, a famous dancer. Upon his return to California, he went to Horton yet again to study dance.
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In 1953, Alvin Ailey joined the Horton's Company and gave his first dance performance in Horton's ‘Revue Le Bal Caribe.’ He also got a chance to perform in several Hollywood films. When the sudden death of Horton in the same year left the company without an artistic director, Ailey, then just twenty-two, stepped forward to assume the role.
In 1954, Ailey made his Broadway debut in Truman Capote's short-lived musical ‘House of Flowers.’ In 1957, he was in another Broadway musical, ‘Jamaica’, starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban.
He formed his own dance group called the ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’ in 1958. The group gave its inaugural performance on March 30, 1958.
Ailey encouraged multi-racialism and recruited people solely based on their talents. Around this time, he not only created work for his own company, but also choreographed for other dance companies.
In 1960, he premiered ‘Revelations’ through the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This work, which told the tale of African-American culture and the struggles colored people went through even for their basic rights and freedom, became his signature chorographic work.
In 1962, the U.S. State Department funded the Alvin Ailey Dance Company's first overseas tour. This helped him create an international reputation. In the mid-1960s, he stopped performing and focused only on choreography. His works included a number of brilliant dance performances such as ‘Masekela Language’ (1969), which depicted the experience of being black in South Africa. In the same year, he also formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center.
In 1970, Ailey received a commission to create ‘The River’ for the American Ballet Theatre. He was very excited about this opportunity as he believed that it would give him the chance to work with some of the most reputed ballet dancers in the world. However, Ailey was not happy with the performance given by the lead dancer who he left lacked the talents needed for the role.
The year 1971 was a memorable one for Alvin Ailey. His choreographed the dance piece ‘Cry’ which highlighted the struggles of black women across generations. The work was a massive success and soon became known as his masterpiece. Already a highly reputed choreographer by now, Ailey touched even greater heights of glory with this work.
The 1970s marked a highly successful period in his career. His major works of this period include ‘The Mooche’ 1975, ‘Night Creature’ 1975, ‘Pas de "Duke"’ 1976, and ‘Memoria’ 1979. His company also went on extensive international tours during this period.
Alvin Ailey’s company was counted amongst America's most popular dance troupes in the late 1970s. However the strain of working so hard and the constant pressure of being in the limelight took its toll on his health and he suffered a breakdown in 1980 and had to be hospitalized for several weeks before he could resume work again.
Alvin Ailey is best remembered as the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), a modern dance company based in New York. Ailey created more than 79 dances for his company during his lifetime and the company continues to carry forward his legacy even years after his death. At present, it is led by artistic director Robert Battle and associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya.
Awards & Achievements
In 1977, Alvin Ailey was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
He was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors prize in 1988.
He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Personal Life & Legacy
Alvin Ailey was a closeted homosexual. Fearing stigma, he tried to keep his private life as guarded as possible. He was romantically involved with the political activist, David McReynolds, for some time during the 1950s.
He suffered from AIDS and died on December 1, 1989, at the age of 58. Since there was much stigma associated with AIDS in the 1980s, he had asked his doctor to announce the cause of his death as terminal blood dyscrasia, a rare blood disorder.