Alvin Ailey, founder and choreographer of the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), once said, “Making dances is an act of progress; it is an act of growth, an act of celebration, an act of joy,” In 1958, the now-iconic choreographer made progress in the world of dance when he launched his very own modern dance company, putting Black dancers on the world stage.
AAADT began its journey after a one-time performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Two years later, Ailey created his signature work, Revelations, the most prominent of his 79 ballets and the one that often leads to 15-minute ovations and encore per- formances. “This suite explores motivations and emotions of African American religious music which, like its heir, the Blues, takes many forms – true spirituals with their sustained melodies, ring shouts, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues – songs of trouble, love and deliverance,” the 29-year-old Ailey said at the time.
The Chicago Tribune hailed Revelations as “the closest we get in dance to a permanent exhibit…a classic,” while The Washington Post proclaimed, “This company’s nonchalant virtuosity routinely sends its audience into the rapture zone.” AAADT would go on to attain impressive milestones, including a U.S. State Department- sponsored tour to North Africa and Europe; designation as an American “Cultural Ambassador to the World” in 2008 by the U.S. Congress; a recently renewed 1997 residency in South Africa; and the acquisition of a large, state-of-the-art training facility on West 55th Street, New York City, to call home.
Now a bustling fixture in the performing arts community just 10 blocks south of Lincoln Center, the facility is sought after by celebrities and fitness instructors for classes and visual promotions.
Shortly before his death in 1989, Ailey named AAADT dancer Judith Jamison artistic director, which led to additional training programs and an increase in media attention. In 2015, Jamison named Robert Battle, a Miami-based choreographer and founder of Battleworks Dance Company, her successor.
Ailey’s many accomplishments includes the establishment in 1974 of a junior company, Ailey II, under the leadership of Sylvia Waters. Today, Troy Powell, a former member of Ailey II and AAADT, serves as artistic director. “Mr. Ailey created Ailey II in part because he wanted his young students who were taking weekly dance classes to know what it was like to perform and tour,” Powell told The Network Journal in an exclusive interview. “At first, Ailey II was just a workshop company doing outreach. Now, our dancers perform all over the world in huge, beautiful theaters. Some are from the Ailey/Fordham [Bachelor of Fine Arts] Program or The Ailey Certificate Program, and others have earned master’s degrees or are established choreographers. We train them for many different avenues: AAADT or Broadway, or to start their own dance companies or perform with companies in Europe.”
Ailey II’s outreach to young dancers and choreographers was significant for Ailey. “Giving back” by teaching and educating the next generation of dancers became a part of the company’s mission. “I remember he said, ‘The dance came from the people and should always be given back to the people’,” Powell recalls. The company sub- sequently formed Ailey Dance Kids and Ailey Camp to expose underserved children to dance activities, teamwork, and life- enrichment skills. “We educate them about dance and about Mr. Ailey, not just to encourage them to become dancers, but also to encourage a strong work ethic. We let them know anything is possible with hard work and focus.”
This year, Ailey II turned 45. “We’ve come a long way,” Powell observes. “Our dancers are getting better, smarter and stronger. They really invest themselves and respond to what we have to offer.”
Some dancers leave AAADT to form their own dance companies. Choreographers Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson left in 1994 and co-founded Complexions Contemporary Ballet. They’re now headed to Atlanta to train dancers and form a junior company.
AAADT is also tasked with engaging the next generation, but in a different way from Ailey II. Younger audiences are the future supporters of the arts, AAADT Rehearsal Director Matthew Rushing explained to TNJ. We want their support and involvement in dance, more specifically, in the Ailey company,” he notes. “It’s important to have that double-edged sword where we stay connected to our supporters, but also search for newer, younger audiences.”
Ailey came from humble beginnings and spent his career pouring his “blood memories” of rural life in Rogers, Texas, into unforgettable, unrivaled ballets. These were thoughtfully orchestrated to soundtracks of classically trained jazz musicians, such as Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie, whose celebrated compositions evoke African-American culture. Simultaneously, Ailey ran a dance business that has continued to flourish long past his death. It’s safe to say that the students who became professional dancers on his watch carry a small piece of his DNA.
Powell and Rushing confess that they are still settling into their roles. They welcome the challenge and embrace the responsibility. “Ten years later I’m still figuring it out!” Rushing admits. “It’s not so much about knowing the steps, the formations and the counts. The most important thing is knowing how to manage people,and relate to people on different levels. That means learning their language.”
Powell admits to challenges, at least in the beginning. “Everyone wanted to know my vision for Ailey II, but it doesn’t happen overnight. What’s rewarding is seeing the dancers mature and use the information we give them in an intelligent way,” he states.
In Revelations, The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey, co-authored by A. Peter Bailey, Ailey is quoted as saying, “In 1958, there were many terrific Black dancers in New York City, and yet, except for an occasional concert or art show, there was no place for them to dance.” Today, AAADT occupies New York’s City Center every year for a full performance schedule, running from December 4 to January 5. Patrons can attend their favorite Alvin Ailey ballet, or one by the 70 talented choreographers whose work is performed by the company, or both. The company also offers an annual Lincoln Center schedule in June, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center schedule in May; March brings a week’s worth of Ailey II performances. And there are national and international tours throughout the year. At Ailey Extension, 80 dance and fitness classes, from modern to West African dance to classical ballet, are offered weekly for all ages all year round.
(See AAADT at City Center in New York City now through January 5th)