Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Then and Now

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs "LIFT," a piece choreographed by Aszure Barton. It premiered at New York City Center in December 2013.  Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs “LIFT,” a piece choreographed by Aszure Barton. It premiered at New York City Center in December 2013. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Dance fads come and go as quickly as you can change costumes backstage or as often as your daughter needs new dance shoes. From the Charleston to Gangnam style and every dance floor craze in between, the spotlighted choreography or dancer of the moment can change as fast as you can say, “a-5, 6, 7, 8!”

It takes true strength, technique and boundless creativity for a dance form to withstand the test of time – in other words, all the qualities that have driven Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) from the 1950’s into the 21st century without missing so much as a beat.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing this world-renowned modern dance company in person. My jaw dropped when one dancer did the highest, most beautiful developpé – then proceeded to hold her leg there as she continued into a promenade. After every section, the crowd erupted with whistling and cheering that was louder than any applause I’d ever heard at that theater.

It is difficult to fathom this company doing anything besides gracing stages around the world and moving audiences of thousands on a regular basis.

Believe it or not, that was not always the case.

The company’s first performance in 1958 took place at the 92nd street Y, which was an established dance venue in New York City. Ailey referred to their early tours as “station wagon tours.” Mickey Bord, a friend of the company, transported the dancers.

AAADT’s success truly took off in 1960 with the debut of Ailey’s timeless piece, “Revelations.” Its mix of spiritual and gospel music was one of the first majorly successful tries a dance company had ever made to perform to sacred African American music.

AAADT has faced its own share of difficulties throughout the years, including financial hardships in 1970 that threatened to fold the company, as well as the untimely death of its creator in 1989. However, with the creation of The Dance Theater Foundation, Inc. to assist with financial needs and the appointment of Judith Jamison as Artistic Director following Ailey’s death, the company continued to push on to modern day.

Loretta Abbott and Alvin Ailey perform in "Revelations." The timeless piece is included in the Ailey repertoire to this day. Photo by Nicola Cernovitch.

Loretta Abbott and Alvin Ailey perform in “Revelations.” The timeless piece is included in the Ailey repertoire to this day. Photo by Nicola Cernovitch.

Today, the company resides at its very own theater, The Ailey Citigroup Theater, which broke ground in Manhattan in 2001. The Ailey Foundation now includes Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey II, The Ailey School, and The Ailey Extension, which offers dance and fitness classes to the general public. Judith Jamison appointed current Artistic Director Robert Battle in 2011.

“Revelations” and other original Ailey works continue to be danced at their performances, as well as pieces by established choreographers of the past and present. In 2008, AAADT was even declared as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world” in a US Congressional resolution.

Do you think of yourself as an Ailey aficionado?

Scan this list of unique facts and test your Ailey knowledge from past to present.

• Born in rural Texas, Alvin Ailey’s desire to dance didn’t truly come to life until after his relocation to Los Angeles, California, where he saw Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for the first time. He was 12 years old when he moved.

• The company began with seven dancers. That number has since quadrupled. My program from this year’s show listed 31 dancers, without counting rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, who was serving as a guest artist.

• The only time “Revelations” has been performed by anyone other than AAADT or Ailey II was in Mexico City, when Ballet Folklorico performed the piece in the opening ceremonies at the 1968 summer Olympics.

• AAADT became New York City Center’s first resident modern dance company in 1972. It continues to be the Center’s principal dance company.

• In addition to the company’s countless stage performances around the world, AAADT has performed in a wide variety of television programs, including Sesame Street, the Ellen Degeneres Show, the Oprah Winfrey show, Dancing with the Stars, and So You Think You Can Dance.

• A variety of products have been inspired by Alvin Ailey and his dance company, including stamps, greeting cards, and an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Barbie doll.

This information and much more can be found on Alvinailey.org and PBS.org.

Elizabeth Semko
Elizabeth is a dance minor and journalism major at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. A dance student since the age of six, she has danced in the studio and on dance team, as well as at Radio City Music Hall as part of the Rockette Summer Intensive. She currently teaches at a studio in her college town.
Elizabeth Semko

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