Ailey's American Dance Theater Celebrates 50 Years

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is marking its 50th anniversary with a world tour of 50 cities. Ailey died in 1989. Morning Edition looks back at the vision and legacy of the company's founder, dancer and choreographer.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

From the beginning, the dances of Alvin Ailey have illuminated the black experience - southern fields and trains headed north, rocking chairs and white parasols and the glorious release of the dancehall on a hot summer night.

Now the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is on a world tour, celebrating 50 years of soulful motion. And though Alvin Ailey died two decades ago, it remains impossible to separate Alvin Ailey the company from Alvin Ailey the man - here, in 1986, talking about his choreography.

Mr. ALVIN AILEY (Dance Choreographer): The first ballets were ballets about my black roots. I lived in Texas in the South until I was 12, so I had lots of what I called blood memories, blood memories about Texas, old blues and spirituals and gospel music and all that kind of thing that was going on in Texas in the early '30s.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To remember Alvin Ailey, we brought together three women who knew him well: his biographer, his muse and a school friend who introduced him to dance after he moved to Los Angeles: Carmen De Lavallade.

Ms. CARMEN DE LAVALLADE (Dancer, Choreographer): We were in high school, and I saw Alvin during a gymnastic exercise. And I saw this beautiful - I had no idea he could move the way he did and I said, oh, you ought to be a dancer.

MONTAGNE: Carmen De Lavallade would herself become a noted dancer and choreographer. And if Texas shaped the imagination and creative spirit of Alvin Ailey, Los Angeles turned him into a dancer.

Ms. JENNIFER DUNNING (New York Times Dance Critic, Ailey's Biographer): There wasn't a lot of formal dance in L.A. then compared to New York, but there were things going on that really helped shape him.

MONTAGNE: New York Times dance critic and Ailey's biographer Jennifer Dunning.

Ms. DUNNING: One of the things, and I can't say how important I think this is, he went to a school in his neighborhood, a black ghetto, that had the reputation of one of the worst schools in the city. But there were teachers there who took the kids to the theater. And he was taken to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1945, and his curiosity, of which he had a great deal, was sufficiently piqued so that he started going on his own to performances along Central Avenue.

MONTAGNE: In the L.A. of the 1940s and '50s, Central Ave was the street where one could see, on any given night, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington.

And though there may not have been a lot of dance companies, one would prove key to Alvin Ailey. Modern dance pioneer Lester Horton was a white choreographer, who, unusual for the time, welcomed black dancers along with white ones into his studio. Carmen De Lavallade.

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: I took him to Lester's, and he used to sit all the time and watch the classes until Lester said, why are sitting? It's time to get involved.

Ms. DUNNING: Alvin was terrified the first few times he was on stage. He actually ran off his first performance. But he got a sense of how to build a company, and he wouldn't have gotten that in New York. There weren't places like that in New York then, at least in dance.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Alvin Ailey would go on to transform the landscape of modern dance in New York. The company he started there in the late 1950's managed to combine challenging choreography with narratives that resonated beyond traditional dance audiences. And he put on stage a new kind of dancer. Judith Jamison, tall, long-limbed and sensual, became Ailey's biggest star.

Ms. JUDITH JAMISON (Dancer): He has a famous saying, saying I don't like cookie-cutter dancers. He loved diversity, healthy, you know, size, shape, color, anything, just as long as you have a love and appreciation of the arts and light in your life.

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: And the desire.

Ms. JAMISON: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to Alvin Ailey's signature creation: the dance "Revelations."

Ms. JAMISON: "Revelations" has become an American classic.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (singing) (unintelligible)

Ms. JAMISON: First you hear these extraordinary spirituals, then you see people moving across the stage as if they're going to a baptism. You see people as if they're looking up to heaven, pleading for help.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (singing) Do you see Jesus? (unintelligible)

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: Oh, goodness. Well, I was there when it first started.

It's one of those things, you know, sometimes when you start to choreograph something, you don't even know it's happening. You don't know where it comes from. It rolls out of you. And that's what happened to Alvin. It was just perfection from the beginning.

Ms. DUNNING: It's essentially a serious of vignettes that are taken from the themes of gospel songs to which the piece is set. He touched in a wonderfully specific, but not exclusive way, on his memories of his Texas childhood.

People always talk mysteriously about not understanding dance. You can't not understand "Revelations."

(Soundbite of song, "Rock-a My Soul")

Unidentified Woman: (singing) Gonna rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.

MONTAGNE: With women in straw hats joyously fanning themselves, "Revelations" has long been a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Biographer Jennifer Dunning says Alvin Ailey had a love-hate relationship with the dance he was practically required to include in every program, something she discovered when she once asked him about it.

Ms. DUNNING: And he banged his head and his fists on the table and groaned, oh Rev, Rev, Rev. I'm so tired of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock-a My Soul")

Unidentified Woman: (singing) Oh, rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham.

MONTAGNE: At the half century mark, the Alvin Ailey Company is a powerhouse in the dance world. In Manhattan, its home is the largest building dedicated to dance in America, and the Ailey School turns out new young dancers every year. While together in our studio, Carmen De Lavallade and Judith Jamison considered what it was about Alvin Ailey that allowed his vision to thrive to this day.

Ms. JAMISON: I think part of Alvin's longevity had to do with his concern for dancers as human beings first. He loved people, and he really was concerned about bringing dance to people. But he also wanted whole human beings on stage that had something to tell you about your existence sitting in that dark theater and having that magic happen in front of you.

MONTAGNE: Alvin Ailey died 20 years ago.

Ms. JAMISON It's always bittersweet.

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: I can't believe it's been that long. But anyway…

Ms. JAMISON: Yeah.

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: …time goes very fast.

MONTAGNE: I wonder, it's not something you might think of on a - you know, typically, on any given day, but I'm wondering if this year in particular, you're thinking, you know, what would he think?

Ms. JAMISON: Oh, we've been - you know, ever since he passed, we've thought what did he think.

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: Yes.

Ms. JAMISON: It's not particularly this year. We know that he would be very proud.

Ms. DE LAVALLADE: Oh, he would be so happy. I mean, with the school and every - I mean he would absolutely crazed with joy. You know, and he would still be creating new things and getting new ideas. He was always inventing, always thinking, always creating.

MONTAGNE: Carmen De Lavallade, Judith Jamison and Jennifer Dunning celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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