While the most ardent of dance connoisseurs would argue that Alvin Ailey was a pioneer in modern dance, few can deny the influence he’s had on the art form and American culture.
Born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey grew up in the era of heightened racial tension. It was his early introduction to the Southern Baptist church and local music halls that instilled in him an impassioned sense of black pride that would later prove to be the inspiration for many of the choreographer’s signature works.
At 11 years of age, Ailey moved to Los Angeles where he flourished in the arts at Thomas Jefferson High School. However, it wasn’t until his late teens, after being introduced to Lester Horton’s Hollywood dance studio, Ailey discovered a love of dance.
The only racially integrated dance school in the U.S., Lester Horton’s curriculum included a wide range of styles and techniques, including classical ballet, jazz and Native American dance. In 1953, Ailey, a full-time student at Horton’s school, made his debut in Horton’s company in the production of Revue Le Bal Caribe.
Following the untimely death of Horton later that year, Ailey assumed the role of artistic director for the company. At the time, the 22-year-old had only choreographed one piece.
Despite his lack of experience, Ailey went on to choreograph, design costumes and run rehearsals for Horton’s company, while fervently searching for a new mentor. He made his Broadway debut in Truman Capote’s musical House of Flowers in 1954, then went on to study with the likes of Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. Unsuccessful in his quest to find a technique that resonated with his style, Ailey began creating his own works.
Ailey’s greatest success came after he formed his own company.
On March 30, 1958, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater debuted its first concert. Ailey’s choreography was derived from his training in ballet, modern and African dance techniques. In his signature pieces Blues Suite and Revelations, Ailey drew upon his upbringing in the church, as well as the emotional anguish of African Americans. Throughout his career, Ailey choreographed more than 80 ballets, most of which were rooted in his desire to preserve the African-American culture.
Celebrating 60 years of innovative artistry, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater recently embarked on an international tour. The company will take to the stage at the New York City Center this holiday, Nov. 28-Dec. 30.
The City Center schedule will feature special programs of both popular works and rare repertoire. Along with timeless treasures by Ailey, the presentation will feature works by some of the companies most celebrated choreographers, including Ronald K. Brown, Rennie Harris, Jessica Lang, Wayne McGregor and artistic director Robert Battle.