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Ballet Encyclopedia

Alvin Ailey

born: 1931
died: 1989

Alvin Ailey was born on the 5th of January 1931 in Rogers, Bell County, Texas. He was the only child of his 17 year old mother, Lula. When Alvin was six months old his father left his mother and him to fend for themselves. They first moved to Navasota but eventually settled in Los Angeles. To survive Alvin Ailey and his mother picked cotton and did domestic work.

The first time Alvin discovered dance was during a high school field trip to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He later studied with Katherine Dunham but his most important influence was choreographer and teacher Lester Horton.

After leaving his studies in romance language at UCLA Alvin Ailey began studying with Horton in 1949. His Broadway debut was in the 1950 production of Truman Capote's House of Flowers after which Ailey decided to stay in New York for a while and study ballet, modern dance and acting. He studied with, among others, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. During the 1950's Ailey became the longtime lover of American Socialist Politician David McReynolds.

In 1953 Lester Horton passed away and Ailey took over his performing troupe. During the next few years he appeared on and off Broadway and on film as a dancer, choreographer, actor and director. Ailey choreographed the debut performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Leonard Bernstein's Mass. He also choreographed the inaugural production for the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Theater on Samuel Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra. Even with those successes it was his choreography Blues Suite performed at New York's 92nd street in 1958 that marked the beginning of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Ailey's most famous work, Revelations (1960), has been performed in front of tens of millions of people to date. This masterpiece is a union of modern dance and gospel based on his experiences growing up as an African-American in the south. In 1963 Alvin Ailey integrated his company and was criticized by some black Americans. He explained his reasons for doing so saying that he had "met some incredible dancers of other colors who could cut the work" and that he had run into "reverse racism." In 1965 Alvin decided to stop dancing and concentrate on choreography and directing his company. Starting in 1969 the troupe was the resident company of the Brooklyn Academy of music for three seasons. The Alvin Ailey Dance Company was the first American dance company to tour the U.S.S.R. in 50 years, (American tour of the U.S.S.R. was Isadora Duncan in the 1920's). Their Leningrad performance in 1970 got an ovation that lasted more than twenty minutes. In 1972 the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center was created to home the school and company. In honor of his mother's birthday he choreographed a solo called Cry danced by his leading dancer Judith Jamison. He dedicated this piece to "black women everywhere".

Alvin Ailey and his company have received many awards such as the Dance Magazine Award in 1975, the Capezio Award in 1979, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award in 1987 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988. Ailey also got honorary doctorates from Princeton University, Bard College and Adelphi University. Alvin Ailey died of terminal blood dyscrasia, a disease that affects the bone marrow and red blood cells, on the 1st of December 1989 in New York at the age of 58. It was later revealed in the 1996 biography by Jennifer Dunning that the disease had been AIDS related. Upon his death Judith Jamison was named Artistc Director of the company.

During his life Ailey has choreographed 79 works and to date more than 170 works by 65 choreographers have been performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.