Alvin Ailey: Cultural Ambassador to the World

Posted on March 30, 2012

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Alvin Ailey (January 5, 1931 – December 1, 1989) was an American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. 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. Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, just one year before his death.

Alvin Ailey’s experiences of life in the rural South would later inspire some of Ailey’s most memorable works.

At age 12, he moved with his mother to Los Angeles, where he was introduced to dance by performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. His formal dance training began with an introduction to Lester Horton’s classes by his friend, Carmen de Lavallade. Horton, the founder of the first racially integrated dance company in the United States, became a mentor for Mr. Ailey as he embarked on his professional career. After Horton’s death in 1953, Mr. Ailey became director of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and began to choreograph his own works. In 1954, he was invited to dance in the Broadway musical House of Flowers. Mr. Ailey studied dance with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm and Karel Shook and also took acting classes with Stella Adler.

In 1958, he founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now The Ailey School) in 1969 and formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II) in 1974. Mr. Ailey was a pioneer of Arts In Education programs, particularly those benefiting underserved communities. Throughout his lifetime, he was awarded numerous honorary doctoral degrees, NAACP’s Spingarn Award, the United Nations Peace Medal, the Dance Magazine Award, the Capezio Award and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to American culture. When Mr. Ailey died on December 1, 1989, The New York Times said of him, “you didn’t need to have known [him] personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood.”

The Company: Alvin Ailey Dance Foundatn is the umbrella organization that supports the activities of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey II, The Ailey School, Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs and The Ailey Extension.

Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation’s mission is to further the pioneering work of Alvin Ailey by establishing an extended cultural community which provides dance performances, training and community programs for all people. This performing arts community plays a crucial social role using the beauty and humanity of the African American heritage and other cultures to unite people of all races, ages and backgrounds.

About Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater grew from a now-fabled performance in March 1958 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African-American modern dancers, that performance changed forever the perception of American dance. The Ailey company has gone on to perform for an estimated 23 million people at theaters in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents — as well as millions more through television broadcasts. In 2008, a U.S. Congressional resolution designated the Company as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world,” one that celebrates the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage. When Mr. Ailey began creating dances, he drew upon his “blood memories” of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration, which resulted in the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Revelations. Although he created 79 ballets over his lifetime, Mr. Ailey maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. Today, the Company continues Mr. Ailey’s mission by presenting important works of the past and commissioning new ones. In all, more than 200 works by over 80 choreographers are part of the Ailey company’s repertory. Before his untimely death in 1989, Alvin Ailey designated Judith Jamison as his successor, and over the next 21 years, she brought the Company to unprecedented success. In July 2011, Ms. Jamison passed the mantle to Robert Battle. In announcing his appointment as Artistic Director, Ms. Jamison stated, “Combining an intimate knowledge of the Ailey company with an independent perspective, Robert Battle is without question the creative force of the future.”

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