Celebrating 50 Years Of Alvin Ailey's Influence The work of Alvin Ailey — the legendary dancer and choreographer — lives on through his ground-breaking dance troupe, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The group is celebrating its 50-year anniversary.

Celebrating 50 Years Of Alvin Ailey's Influence

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ALLISON SAMUELS: Alvin Ailey, the legendary African-American dancer and choreographer died 20 years ago. But his influence and legacy has continued to grow internationally. His groundbreaking troupe, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, turns 50 this year. Joining us to talk about this milestone is Nasha Thomas Schmit. She's the co-director of the Ailey Arts and Education Program. Hi, Nasha.

Ms. NASHA THOMAS SCHMIT (Co-director, Ailey Arts and Education Program): Good afternoon. How are you?

SAMUELS: I'm good. I'm good. Now, this is great because I love Alvin Ailey. I've been a fan all my life. And you were a principal dancer for 12 years?

Ms. SCHMIT: I was, yes.

SAMUELS: What was that like to dance with this amazing company?

Ms. SCHMIT: It was a phenomenal experience. I grew up in New York City in Queens and studied at the Ailey School and left for school in California, worked in Italy a little bit. And when I came home and got to audition for the company and was chosen by Mr. Ailey, it was kind of like a dream come true.

SAMUELS: Really. And so now you - obviously, you met him, you knew him.

Ms. SCHMIT: I did. I was hired by Mr. Ailey, auditioned, and was chosen out of about 50 other participants which was a small audition at that time, and then continued working with Ms. Jamison when she took over as artistic director.

SAMUELS: Got you, got you. Now, watching this company grow as it has and they have this international appeal - it has amazing international appeal...

Ms. SCHMIT: Right.

SAMUELS: Are you surprised by that? I mean, why is it?

Ms. SCHMIT: You know, I really am not. I think that Alvin was truly a visionary. He had, you know, this love for dance. He was very talented. And he had a story that he wanted to tell that is universal. You know, it really - the company represents modern dance in the African-American tradition, but the works that Alvin Ailey started choreographing when he put together the company really represent feelings and emotions and happenings that celebrate the life experience. And there are things that we can all relate to. So, when the company is performing in China or Los Angeles or Italy, the ballets that are being performed are pieces that can be enjoyed and understood and felt really, you know, I think, deeply by everyone that is seeing them.

SAMUELS: Well, it's very interesting because I've always noticed with the group that you've always sort of had this very stable, very huge support system. Even when other dance companies have sort of, you know, sort of lagged behind in sales or whatever, Ailey has been really, really good at...

Ms. SCHMIT: We've been - you know, I think a part of it is - definitely is Alvin and his appeal. People liked him and he liked people. People were drawn to him and his message that he was sending through his company. The company, of course, is supported by a phenomenal board and our executive director Sharon Luckman and our artistic director Judith Jamison. But it is really the public that has helped the company sustain. And Judith Jamison, you know, believes, as a lot of us believe, you surround yourself with people that are smarter in ways that you're not smart, people that can help you do the job that needs to be done because we all have our special areas of talent. And it's just an incredible organization from all aspects, from the administration to the people that come. And it is really about presenting a company and works and programs, be it our educational programs at the school or our Ailey camps like the one here in Los Angeles that's funded by the Gloria Kaufman...

SAMUELS: Right.

Ms. SCHMIT: Dance Foundation, programs and performances of excellence and that is really what it's about.

SAMUELS: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you because this is a milestone, a 50-year milestone...

Ms. SCHMIT: Right.

SAMUELS: Which is incredible and the company has evolved so much. Is that what your proudest of some, of the outreach programs?

Ms. SCHMIT: I think Alvin always wanted his company to be accessible and the organization to be accessible. There are people that come in to see us because they love the performances. There are people that come in to see us because they want to train and learn dance techniques. There are people that come to see us because they want to have the outreach experience. They bring us into their communities and we go to these communities. It is an organization that is multifaceted. And I think that that is definitely the thing that has made us so popular for lack of another word. We do a lot of things, but at the core, we are accessible. We have things that support and give back to the community and that's what Alvin really wanted to do when he started the company. He said he believed dance came from the people and it should be delivered back to the people. So, whether it's the performances or our BFA program or our Ailey Camp or our Arts and Education residencies or Ailey too, it is really about giving back.

SAMUELS: Now, what's also amazing - as you said, it's all about Alvin in many ways and his presence, and he's been gone for 20 years.

Ms. SCHMIT: Right.

SAMUELS: That's amazing because I think with another kind of person, would that have been caught -you know, possible?

Ms. SCHMIT: Well, I think with any - you know, we've seen a lot of dance companies lose their founder. Judith Jamison is a dynamic woman. She was an incredible performer, she is a personality, and she was very, very close with Alvin working artistically. She is known for many of his ballets - "Umbrella," "Wade in the Water" and "Cry," and you know, and other ballets. She is just - she's a visionary in her own right, you know. And I think she was the best person to take over in his departure. But Judy has been a true leader.

SAMUELS: OK.

Ms. SCHMIT: And I think that - she has said, Alvin left a map, a ground work for every - you know, for us to follow. And although it has been - she's almost celebrating her 20th anniversary this actually, December. I'm sure it has been something that has been a work of love for her.

SAMUELS: Right. OK.

Ms. SCHMIT: It has been something that she has been able to do easily.

SAMUELS: Right. OK.

Ms. SCHMIT: Because of her background, what she has - her place in the company and the organization and what he had left.

SAMUELS: Well, now, let's talk my favorite, favorite, favorite part of Alvin Ailey and my favorite dance of Alvin Ailey "Revelations," which has been seen - I guess the dance has been seen by more people…

Ms. SCHMIT: Than any other ballet…

SAMUELS: Well, than any other ballet…

Ms. SCHMIT: In the world, in the dance world.

SAMUELS: What is it about that particular dance that is so uplifting and wonderful and you can't forget it. When you see it, it just - you'll never forget it.

Ms. SCHMIT: You can't - audiences can't forget it. Performers never get tired of performing it. And again, it is about an experience - experiences that we had all felt. The actual action of the experience is different. But Alvin Ailey, who grew up in a small town in Texas where it was very hot, he attended a Baptist church, he was raised by a single parent, he had all of these things he called blood memories. And he created this ballet, he choreographed this ballet with the story of his life, you know, and he was born in 1931, experienced the Great Depression, experienced segregation. Here we are in 2009 and we have a major financial crisis around the world. There are experiences that we are all having, but a ballet like "Revelations" makes all of those different experiences one universal experience where we can all celebrate the hardships.

SAMUELS: Thank you so much, Nasha.

Ms. SCHMIT: You're welcome.

SAMUELS: That was Nasha Thomas Schmit. She's the co-director of the Ailey Arts In Education Program. She joined us here in the studios of NPR West in Culver City.

COX: That's our show for today. Glad you could join us. To listen to the show or subscribe to the podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or to sign up for the newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org. News and Notes was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Tony Cox. This is News & Notes.

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