Ailey, a child of the Depression, was both outrageous and courageous. Equipped with brilliant energy, good humor, and a sense of community, Ailey broke many barriers in the theater world. His dances, bridging black and white cultures, rewrote the choreographic canon by intertwining European American linear styles with black Africanist qualities and structures. He demonstrated that a dance language accessible to a broad public has important artistic value. Throughout Ailey's fifty-nine years, he strived for the rightful place of black dance and culture in America: "Treat us like something that's worthwhile, like something that contributes to the culture of the country."
Born on January 4, 1931, in Rogers, Texas, north of Austin, Ailey and his mother, Lulu, were abandoned by his father. Ten years later his mother preceded him to Los Angeles, a city that promised work for blacks during the war effort. As a teenager Ailey began wandering the city's movie houses, the theatrical and nightclub scenes, and seeing performances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Katherine Dunham and her Tropical Revue. It made him curious about the creative potential of dance. Two of his friends, Fred Crumb and Carmen de Lavallade, drew the seventeen-year-old to Lester Horton's studio where he started his dance studies. After graduation from high school, Ailey enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, interrupting his dance training. An indifferent student, in 1950 he transferred to Los Angeles City College where he found time to dance, quickly moving into the advanced class.
Ailey enrolled at San Francisco State University in 1952. He danced briefly with Anna Halprin and partnered another dancer, Marguerite Angelos (now, Maya Angelou), in a nightclub act known as Al and Rita. Another show, directed by Lou Fontaine, introduced Ailey to jazz music and dancing. Soon the act was booked into Los Angeles and Ailey returned to the Horton studio.
In 1953, with high hopes, the Horton troupe drove to New York to perform, only to find their concert badly advertised and under reviewed. The company recovered with a strong season and a successful debut at Jacob's Pillow summer dance festival in Massachusetts. Invited back to the Pillow for a two-week engagement, the company's euphoria crashed with Horton's sudden death. Leadership of the company went to Ailey.
The following year Ailey returned to New York to dance in the chorus of Carmen Jones, choreographed by Herbert Ross. Back in Los Angeles, Ailey proclaimed that the artist must create "his own unity according to his own experience and belief." He worked collaboratively on Morning Mourning and According to St. Francis, two dances from this experimental period as director of the Horton company.
In New York to dance in House of Flowers, another musical choreographed by Herbert Ross, Ailey, only twenty-four, was a hit. Critic Carl Van Vechten enthused: "Alvin Ailey has all the attributes of a great dancer." John Martin likened him to a "svelte, nervously alert animal." Ailey remained in New York making his new dance home the New Dance Group, a collective where black and white dancers congregated. After House of Flowers closed, he danced with Anna Sokolow, Donald McKayle, and Sophie Maslow. Ailey taught at different locations between 1955 and 1956, and he appeared in the Off-Broadway play The Carefree Tree; toured with Harry Belafonte's show Sing, Man, Sing; danced in Caribbean Calypso Carnival, directed by Geoffrey Holder; and did a pilot for a television show, The Amos and Andy Music Hall. In 1957 there was another calypso part for him in Jamaica, choreographed by Jack Cole.
Dismayed at the few opportunities for black dancers to do good work in New York, Ailey organized a concert of black dancers in 1958. His dances included Blues Suite, Redonda (Five Dances on Latin Themes), and a solo tribute to Lester Horton, Ode and Homage. Warmly received at Jacob's Pillow, his dancers began to feel like a real company. In 1960, at the premiere of Ailey's Revelations, the dancers were surprised by a cheering standing ovation. Performed to an anthology of Negro spirituals, the work is direct, theatrical, unabashedly fun, autobiographical, and yet captures the human spirit in a way that speaks to all people. A long-time friend, dancer James Truitte once remarked that Revelations is "a dance that contains the history of blacks in America."
A point of view well in hand, Ailey envisioned two innovative ideas for his young company: first was a modern-dance repertory company not fixed to the aesthetic of a single choreographer; the second was to produce regular showcases of new choreography. The company prepared for its first major tour in 1962. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the international tour brought the ten-dancer company to Australia. For the program Ailey wrote: " From his roots as a slave, the American Negro—sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful— has touched, illuminated, and influenced the most remote preserves of world civilization. I and my dance theater celebrate this trembling beauty."
By the mid-1960s the nation was reeling in the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Support for AAADT eroded owing to charges that Ailey's choreography was not legitimate and was too commercial. To counteract the criticism, Ailey sought out signature works by his peers without consideration of the ethnicity of the choreographer. New works in 1966 included Antony and Cleopatra, a commissioned opera by Samuel Barber for the opening of Lincoln Center in New York, and The House of Bernarda Alba (Feast of Ashes).
Ailey created Masekela Langage and La Strada in 1969. Two years later Streams was choreographed to a score by Miloslav Kabelac, and Gymnopédie, to Erik Satie's piano score, rounded out the season. Jennifer Dunning called this period Ailey's "golden years. " Just when success was at his fingertips, Ailey shocked the dance world by dissolving the company. He was demoralized and tired because the tour of the Soviet Union arranged by the state department had failed to materialize. Just as suddenly, the tour was back on for the fall, convincing Ailey to reinstate his company. At the same time, he was creating his first plotless ballet, The River (with a Duke Ellington score) for American Ballet Theatre.
Following seasons in the Soviet Union and in England, the company returned to New York to more success. Fascinated with the ballet idiom, in 1971 Ailey created Flowers starring British ballerina Lynn Seymour. Cry, a dance for Judith Jamison, was dedicated to Ailey's mother and to " all black women everywhere." In this period Ailey's dances demonstrated a passionate relationship to the music, quickening the emotions of the dance and establishing his role as a storyteller.
Ailey choreographed Leonard Bernstein's religious opera, Mass (1972). He received an honorary degree from Princeton University, was invited to perform for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College, and was commissioned to create the dances for Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera Company. His first television special, Alvin Ailey: Memories and Visions, aired in 1974. Three years later Ailey received one of the first long-term residency awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. This allowed the company to remain in such towns as Atlanta (1977), Los Angeles (1983), and Kansas City (1984 and 1986). More dances poured forth: the sultry Night Creature (1975) and The Mooche (1974), honoring five great black female singers, were created for a television program honoring Duke Ellington.
In 1977, to celebrate the company's twentieth anniversary, Ailey produced a festival honoring Duke Ellington. He was one of the first dancers to receive the Mayor's Award of Honor in Arts and Culture, followed in 1979 with the Capezio Dance Award. The death of his former partner, Joyce Trisler, resulted in a moving tribute, Memoria, but his own world was unraveling. In 1980 Ailey was arrested for criminal trespass and held for psychological testing at New York's Bellevue Hospital. Nevertheless, in 1984 he choreographed For Bird—With Love to music by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Jerome Kern.
The company's thirtieth anniversary in 1988 was not joyful, for Ailey was in failing health. Feted at the Kennedy Center's annual honors, Ailey and the company were featured in another television special, hosted by Bill Cosby. Ailey enthused: "I am overwhelmed by these people—it's always been the people."
Four nights after receiving New York City's Handel Medallion for cultural achievement, Ailey entered the hospital and was diagnosed with AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Although weakened, he maintained his work pace. But by the summer of 1989, Ailey was forced to reduce his schedule. He flew to Kansas City where he witnessed, unannounced, the performance at the end of the first AileyCamp for underprivileged youth, the culmination of a long-held dream. It was his last public appearance. Ailey died on December 1, 1989, and was buried in Whittier, California. His company has survived him, directed by his longtime dance partner and assistant, Judith Jamison.
Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Miles Orvell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), s.v. "Ailey, Alvin" (by Janice LaPointe-Crump), http://eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=227 (accessed December 28, 2011).