During the civil rights era, Alvin Ailey founded a dance company in New York to bring African American dancers into the spotlight. His choreography drew on ballet, jazz, traditional African dance, and modern dance. Over the years, his dancers have performed for about 25 million people around the world.
Alvin Ailey, who died in 1989, was born in 1931 in Rogers, Texas. His company and his iconic numbers like “Night Creatures” and “Revelations” continue to shed light on the black experience. Ailey also posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2014.
“Alvin Ailey wanted to express the experiences of African Americans in this country through the prism of modern dance, express the culture,” says Robert Battle, Artistic Director of the company. “But beyond that, he was an artist. He wanted to express many things, and he never wanted to be put in a box… He was just trying to make beauty through this medium that he loved and that he found. And if you could do his dances, no matter if you were purple or polka dot, he wanted you to have the opportunity to tell your story.”
Alvin Ailey’s history in LA
Robert Battle tells Press Play that Alvin Ailey cut his teeth in Los Angeles, working with choreographer Lester Horton here. “There's that history of Mr. Ailey living here, learning his craft, and then eventually taking that to New York, and starting the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958.”
Dancer Carmen de Lavallade was the one who got Ailey dancing in the first place, and she introduced him to Horton, who was her teacher. Beyond dancing, Horton taught Ailey about costume making, lighting, and integrating diversity into performances.
“Lester Horton made him feel like his life had even more meaning through dance, through the arts. And so that left an indelible impression on Alvin Ailey, who then wanted to do that for others, which is why he started the company,” says Battle.
Integration and diversity were radical during Ailey’s time
Battle says black dancers weren’t allowed to study in certain places, and they had little representation onstage.
“Alvin Ailey saw that deficit, and wanted to do something about it, wanted to tell those stories that were not being told. And so there he started the company on the brink of the civil rights movement… The company was not just about entertaining, but also educating. It was very important,” says Battle.
The significance of the company's 60th Anniversary
Battle says not only has the company survived for so long, but it is thriving and just getting started.
This season, Battle has commissioned hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris to make a work inspired by Ailey. It’s the company’s first ever two-act ballet.
“It really looks at and examines some of the things that plagued him. You have visions of lynching, of the civil rights movement, of protests. You have some of the things that haunted his own choreography and his own impetus to make dance,” describes Battle. “And then by the second half, the statement to me is that death didn't have the final word in 1989, that he's alive.”
Battle says Ailey’s legacy is made up of the company’s dancers, people who watch those dancers, donors, board members, students who study at the Ailey school, the arts and education programs.
“I think once he got his foot in the door, he wanted to leave it open as far and wide, so that others could come through and experience this wonderful, transformative thing called dance,” Battle says.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater often performs “Revelations.” Battle says it’s like the eighth wonder of the world, and it’s one of the most seen and celebrated modern dances ever created.
He says it’s about the experiences of black people in America and how they overcame obstacles through faith and hope.
“It's a universal message, although it's about something very specific. No matter where we are, no matter what the audience looks like, they feel that they take Revelations with them. As soon as that curtain goes up, you feel that anticipation,” he says.
Battle believes “Revelations” represents something Ailey once said: “Dance comes from the people, and should always be delivered back to the people.”
Battle first saw “Revelations” when he was growing up in Liberty City, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami. He was 12 or 13 years old at the time.
“Seeing ‘Revelations’ was like seeing myself. When I started dancing as a young boy, I was picked on. I was teased and bullied. But there on the stage were these beautiful men dancing with such courage and grace, which told me that if they had the courage to do that, that I could do it too,” Battle says. “And just seeing the whole company of people who reflected what I felt about myself deep down inside was an amazing thing… Everybody has a story, I think, attached to seeing that dance for the first time.”
--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson