The Life and Times of Alvin Ailey
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Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931 in Rogers, Texas to Lula Elizabeth Ailey. Lula was only 17 years old at the time of his birth. His father abandoned the family when Alvin was only six months old. Because the era Alvin was born in was the Great Depression, the Aileys moved around often. Growing up during the great depression also meant that his mother had a hard time finding work. Unfortunately, Alvin also grew up during a time of racial segregation, violence and lynching against African-Americans. When Alvin was five, he began to fear whites when his mother was raped by a group of white men. She was only 22 years old when this happened. That was not the only culture shock in Alvin’s life though. He also attended a Southern Baptist church. The church left Alvin with experiences that filled him with a great sense of black pride. That sense of black pride would later be blatantly shown in Ailey’s signature works. Like many other African Americans, Ailey’s mother moved in the fall of 1942 to Los Angeles, California.
This is because rumors were heard that there were well paid jobs in helping with the war effort. Alvin had stayed back in Texas to finish out the school year but eventually joined his mother by train. The first junior high school that Ailey attended in California happened to be located in a primarily white school district. This made Alvin uncomfortable because of his fear of whites and because he was one of the few black students. Eventually, the Aileys moved to a predominantly black school district. Here he first attended George Washington Carver Junior High School, and after, Thomas Jefferson High School. During this time he sang in the glee club and wrote poetry. To pass time Alvin would attend shows at Lincoln Theater and the Orpheum Theater. In 1949, Alvin met a friend at school by the name of Carmen De Lavallade. Carmen first introduced Ailey to the Hollywood Studio of Lester Horton. Before this point, Alvin was never really serious about dance. At the studio Alvin met Lester Horton who would prove to be an important event in his life.
Lester Horton was a major influence in Alvin’s whole career. Horton became a mentor, teaching him how to grow artistically through technique and giving him a foundation. Dance styles and techniques, such as classical ballet, jazz, and Native American dance were all taught at Horton’s school. At first, Alvin was not sure if he truly wanted to be a professional dancer. Ailey would even keep his life as a dancer a secret from his mother for the first two years. Ailey focused more on academics, primarily studying languages and writings. Alvin took courses at various universities in California where he studied the writings of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Carson McCullers. In 1951 Alvin moved to San Francisco to continue his studies where he met Marguerite Johnson who goes by the name Maya Angelou now. They would occasionally performed poetry at a nightclub act called “Al and Rita”. To earn a living Alvin worked at the New Orleans Champagne Supper Club waiting tables and dancing. After a while Ailey returned to study dance with Horton in southern California. Alvin joined Horton’s company in 1953. Ailey began to study full time at Horton’s school when he was twenty-two.
His major debut was in Horton’s Revue Le Bal Caribe. After his debut, Ailey performed in several Hollywood films. Like all of Horton’s students, Ailey also studied other art forms, including painting, acting, music, set design, and costuming, as well as ballet, modern, and ethnic dance. When Horton died of a heart attack in November 1953 he left the company without an artistic director. When no one else stepped forward, Ailey took the role of artistic director. At this time Ailey was still only twenty-two and had choreographed only one dance in a workshop. Despite his youth and lack of experience though, he began choreographing, directing scene and costume designs, and running rehearsal. Ailey designed his first piece in memory of Horton. It showcased James Truitte’s physical strength and Carmen de Lavallade’s beauty and dramatic abilities. Alvin and Carmen De lavallade were invited to New York in 1954 to dance on Broadway. They danced on the Broadway show, House of Flowers by Truman Capote, starring Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll.
Alvin also appeared in Sing, Man, Sing in 1956, starring Harry Belafonte and in Jamaica in 1957 with Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalbán. Unfortunately the New York modern dances in the fifties did not appeal to Ailey. When Alvin watched other modern dance teachers such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and José Limón he felt Graham’s dancing was “finicky and strange” and disliked the techniques of both Humphrey and Limón. Not being able to find a technique similar to Horton’s, disappointed Alvin very much. Due to not being able to find a proper mentor who he liked Ailey began creating works of his own. In 1958, Ailey formed his own group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Ailey focused on a complete theatrical experience, including costumes, lighting, and make-up. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater was constructed by Tishman Realty and Construction Corporation of New York, Manhattan’s largest builder. On March 30, 1958 the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed their first concert.
Ailey focused on a complete theatrical experience, including costumes, lighting, and make-up. Notable early works included Blues Suite, a piece coming from blues songs. The piece had intense emotional appeal because it expressed the pain and anger of African Americans. Blues Suite was an instant success and defined Ailey’s style. Revelations was another on of Ailey’s signature works. To create this piece Alvin focused on his “blood memories” of Texas, the blues, spirituals, and gospel. All together the result was the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work. Ailey originally intended the dance to be the second part of a larger, evening-length listening of African-American music which he began with Blues Suite. Another one of Ailey’s greatest successes was the dance piece Cry created in 1971. The piece was paid homage to black women everywhere especially his mother.
It became a signature piece for Judith Jamison. Ailey always claimed that his company was not only him showing off his own work even though he had created 79 works for his dancers. Ailey’s dancers came to his company with training from a variety of other schools, from ballet to modern and jazz and later hip-hop. Alvin did not train his dancers in a specific technique before they performed his choreography which was unique at the time. He required them to combine his choreography with their own individual style and talents. This openness of combination brought harmony between concert dance and other forms of African-American expression. Due to his previous training in ballet, modern dance, jazz, and African dance techniques Ailey’s choreography was a lively and energetic mix. Ailey valued variety so hence he used combinations of dance techniques that were best fit for the theatrical moment. In a way, Alvin created more of a dance style than a technique. He said that what he wanted from a dancer was a long, unbroken leg line and deftly articulated legs and feet “a ballet bottom” combined with a dramatically expressive upper torso “a modern top”.
“What I like is the line and technical range that classical ballet gives to the body. But I still want to project to the audience the expressiveness that only modern dance offers, especially for the inner kinds of things.” Today, the company continues “Ailey’s vision” by performing important works from the past but also including new additions to the repertoire. In all, more than 200 works by over 70 choreographers have been performed by the company. Ailey was honored by a commission to create The River for ABT in 1970. The River was based on the music of composer Duke Ellington. With this opportunity Ailey was able to work with some of the finest ballet dancers in the world. One of the most famous dancers he got to work with was the great dramatic ballerina Sallie Wilson. In 1977, Ailey was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, just one year before his death. In 1977, Ailey was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, just one year before his death. Ailey died on December 1, 1989 at the age of 58.
To spare his mother the social stigma of his death from AIDS, he asked his doctor to announce that he had died of terminal blood. In 1992 Alvin Ailey was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, NY. Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th century concert dance. His company gained the nickname “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because of its extensive international touring. Ailey’s choreographic masterpiece Revelations is believed to be the best known and most often seen modern dance performance. I really enjoyed researching Alvin Ailey.
I feel as if he was an amazing American choreographer and activist. What I really thought was fantastic was the fact that he started the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, NY. I always thought that Lester Horton was the only modern dance founder who started his own theater. Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th century concert dance which I adore. Just like I have a great nickname to describe me, his company gained the nickname “Cultural Ambassador to the World” because of its extensive international touring. Ailey’s choreographic masterpiece Revelations is believed to be the best known and most often seen modern dance performance. I watched this piece and I have trying to rein act every dance move since. This is a piece I would always remember.
“Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.” Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
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