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Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey created 79 ballets, starred in four Broadway shows and created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This February, BroadwayWorld is committed to celebrating the outstanding contributions that black artists have made to the American theatre. Join us for Black History month as we shine a spotlight on some of the most influential theatre-makers from Broadway's past.

Today is all about ground-breaking dance icon Alvin Ailey.

Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Alvin Ailey
Photo by Eric N. Hong

Who is Alvin Ailey?

Alvin Ailey was a dancer, director, choreographer, and activist who is perhaps best known for founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His work fused theater, modern dance, ballet, and jazz with black vernacular, creating hope-fueled choreography that continues to spread global awareness of black life in America.

Born in Rogers, Texas on January 5, 1931, Alvin Ailey was introduced to dance by performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. His formal dance training began with an introduction to Lester Horton's classes by his friend, Carmen de Lavallade.

What is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater?

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater grew from the now-fabled performance in March 1958 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African-American modern dancers, that performance changed forever the perception of American dance.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, recognized by U.S. Congressional resolution as a vital American "Cultural Ambassador to the World," has performed for over 25 million people in 48 states and in 71 countries on 6 continents, celebrating the African-American cultural experience and the American modern dance tradition. Ailey's permanent home is The Joan Weill Center for Dance, the largest building dedicated to dance in New York City, the dance capital of the world.

Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Alvin Ailey
Photo by Zoe Dominic

The Ailey Organization now includes: Ailey II (a second performing company of young dancers and emerging choreographers), The Ailey School (one of the world's most extensive dance training programs), Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs (which bring dance into classrooms and communities), and Ailey Extension (offering dance and fitness classes to the public).

Although he created 79 ballets over his lifetime, Ailey maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. Today, the Company continues 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 repertoire.

What is Revelations?

Often regarded as Ailey's choreographic masterpiece, Revelations is recognized as one of the most popular and most performed ballets in the world. In this work he blended primitive, modern and jazz elements of dance with a concern for black rural America.

It is also the signature work of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which premiered an extended version of the work (lasting over an hour) in 1960, when Ailey was 29 years old. Set to spirituals, gospel, and blues music and influenced by the choreographer's own Christian upbringing, it presents a vision of the historical African American experience from a church-inspired perspective. The three sections of the final 36-minute revised version depict the suffering of slavery ("Pilgrim of Sorrow"), baptismal joy ("Take me to the Water"), and a choral church celebration ("Move, Members, Move").

Revelations has been presented at the White House on many occasions, including the presidential inaugurations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and it also formed part of the Opening Ceremonies for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Did Alvin Ailey star in any Broadway shows?

Ailey made his Broadway debut in 1954's House of Flowers, choreographed by Herbert Ross. He went on to star in The Carefree Tree (1955), Jamaica (1957), and Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright (1962). he also stage dances and musical numbers in La Strada (1969).

Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Alvin Ailey
Photo by Normand Maxon

What is Alvin Ailey's legacy?

Ailey died from an AIDS related illness in 1989, at the age of 58.

In 1968 Ailey was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US & Canada. In 1977 he received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988, and was inducted into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame in 1992.

On July 15, 2008, the United States Congress passed a resolution designating AAADT a "vital American cultural ambassador to the World." In the same year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared December 4th "Alvin Ailey Day" in New York City while then Governor David Paterson honored the organization on behalf of New York State.

Ailey posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2014.

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