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Alvin Ailey 1931-1989

Country : Rogers, TX
Profession : Dancer
Date of birth : 1931-01-05
Date of death : 1989-12-01
Cause of Death : Unspecified

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Alvin Ailey Jr. (5 January 1931 – 1 December 1989) was an American modern dancer, choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. Ailey is one of the most important choreog­raphers in the history of modern dance. His body of work shaped African American participation in American modern dance dur­ing the thirty-year period before his death. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater popularized modern dance throughout the world with his international tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Because of these tours it is theorized that Ailey's choreographical masterpiece Revelations is the most well-known and frequently seen modern dance performance.



Early years

Ailey was born to his 17-year-old mother, Lula Cooper, in Rogers, Texas. His father abandoned the family when Alvin was only 6 months old. Like many African-Americans living in Texas during the Great Depression Ailey's mother strug­gled to find work and moved often because of it. Ailey grew up during a time of racial segregation in Texas. Rumors of lynchings against African-Americans and the rape of his mother by white men when he was five made him fearful of whites. Constant positive influences came from black social institutions such as the Southern Baptist church and juke joints instilled in him a fierce black pride. These early experiences would go on to figure prominently in Ailey's signature works.

In the Fall of 1941, Ailey's mother followed friends to Los Angeles, California where she heard there was lucrative war work. Ailey stayed behind with Amos in Navasota, Texas to finish the school year. Ailey followed later that summer. Upon arrival in California Ailey's first Junior High School was located in a primarily white school district. As one of the only black students, Ailey felt out of place and so the Aileys moved to a different predominantly black district. He matriculated into George Washington Carver Junior High School and later, the Thomas Jefferson High School. School was a sanctuary for Ailey. Despite having an athletic build, he spent long hours in the library reading and writing poetry. He was able to avoid both contact sports and being viewed as effeminate by taking up gymnastics. Ailey first encountered concert dance in movies. He was attracted to the glamour of stars such as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. He sang spirituals in the glee club, wrote poetry, and proved to have an affinity for foreign languages. Further alienating him from his peers. He briefly studied tap dancing and tried the “primitive dance” taught by Dunham dancer Thelma Robinson in a seedy downtown night club. Ailey found the experience unpleasant and turned to modern dance when a friend introduced him to the Hollywood dance theater of Lester Horton in 1949. Horton would prove to be Ailey's major influence, giving him both a technique and foundation with with to grow artistically. His all black school as well as the entertainment districts on Central Avenue and in Downtown Los Angeles provided Ailey with more positive examples of African-American performance. He regularly attended shows at Lincoln Theater and the Orpheum Theater where he saw jazz greats Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Pigmeat Markham. It was during this time that he was introduced to dance by performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

College and Beyond

He briefly studied tap and took dance lessons from a member of Dunham's company but wasn't entirely comfortable with either style. He joined a friend from Horton's school. Horton taught a wide range of dance styles and techniques from classical ballet to Native American dance. Horton's school was also the first multi-racial dance school in the U.S. Ailey at first displayed ambivalence towards becoming a professional dancer. Ailey studied Romance languages at various Universities in California, but was restless academically. In college he also studied the writings of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Carson McCullers. Ailey moved to San Francisco in 1951 to continue college where he met Margaurite Angelos (Maya Angelou). They performed occasionally performed a nightclub act called "Al and Rita." Ailey earned a living waiting tables and dancing at the New Orleans Champagne Supper Club. Ailey was restless academically and ultimately returned to study dance with Horton in southern California.

The Horton Dance Company

At twenty-two Ailey began full-time study at Horton's school. He joined Horton's company in 1953 performed in Horton's company, making his debut in Horton's Revue Le Bal Caribe. It was also during this period that he performed in several Hollywood films. Ailey kept his life as a dancer a secret from his mother for the first two years. When she came to his dressing room and saw him in stage makeup for the first time, she slapped him in the face.

Horton's sudden death in November 1953 left the company with out an artistic director. The company had outstanding contracts that required new works. When no one else stepped forward, Ailey assumed the role of artistic director of the company. Despite his youth and inexperience (Ailey was only twenty-two and had only choreographed one dance in a workshop) Ailey began choreographing, directing scene and costume designs and running rehearsals.

Ailey designed his first piece to pay homage to Horton. It was arranged in such a way as to showcase James Truitte's physical strength and Carmen de Lavallade's beauty and dramatic abilities.

New York

In 1954, he and his friend Carmen de Lavallade were invited to New York to dance in the Broadway show, House of Flowers by Truman Capote. He also appeared in Sing, Man, Sing (1956) with Harry Belafonte, and with Lena Horne in Jamaica (1957). The New York modern dance scene in the fifties was not to Ailey's taste. He observed the classes of modern dance techniques of modern dance contemporaries such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon. He felt Graham's dancing "finicky and strange" and disliked the techniques of both Doris Humphrey and José Limón. Ailey expressed disappointment in not being able to find a technique similar to Horton's. Not finding a mentor, he began creating works of his own.

Alvin Ailey Dance Theater

Ailey formed his own group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in 1957 which presented its inaugural concert on March 30, 1958. Works of note presented at this time include Blues Suite, a work deriving from blues songs. Ailey's choreography was a dynamic and vibrant mix of his previous training in ballet, modern dance, jazz, and African dance techniques. Ailey also insisted upon a complete theatricality including costumes, lighting and make-up. A work of intense emotional appeal expressing the pain and anger of African Americans,Blues Suite was an instant success and defined Ailey's style.

For his signature work, Revelations, Ailey drew upon his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals, and gospel as inspiration, which resulted in the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work. Ailey originally intended for the dance to be the second part of a larger, evening-length survey of African-American music which he began with Blues Suite.

Through Ailey created 79 works for his company, Ailey maintained that his company was not repository for his own work. Today, the company continues Mr. Ailey's vision by performing important works from the past and commissioning new ones to add to the repertoire. In all, More than 200 works by over 70 choreographers have been performed by the Company.

Ailey took pride in the fact that his company was multi-racial. While, he wanted to give black dancers, who were frequently discriminated against by the racist attitudes of his contemporaries, an opportunity to dance; at the same time, he also wanted to rise above issues of negritude. His company always employed artists based solely on artistic talent and integrity regardless of their race

Ailey continued to create work for his own company, he also choreographed for other companies.

In 1962 the U.S. State Department sponsored The Alvin Ailey Dance Company's first overseas tour. Ailey was suspicious of his company's benefactors motives. He questioned whether their motives were propagandistic, seeking to display a distorted attitude of tolerance by showcasing a modern Negro dance group.

In 1970, Ailey was honored by being commissioned to create The River for American Ballet Theatre. The River used the music of Duke Ellington. Ailey viewed this as a chance to work with some of the best ballet dancers in the world, particularly with the great dramatic ballerina Sallie Wilson. ABT, however, insisted that the leading male role be danced by the only black man, despite Ailey and other contemporaries misgivings about said dancer's talent.

Cry (1971), was one of Ailey's greatest successes. He dedicated to his mother and black women everywhere. It became a signature piece for Judith Jamison.


Ailey's dancers came to his company with training from a variety of other schools, from ballet to modern and jazz and later hip-hop. He is unique in that he didn't develop a specific technique to train his dancers in prior to performance of his choreography. He approached his dancers more like a jazz conductor, requiring them to infuse his choreography with their own unique style which best suited their individual talent. This kind of input from dancers heralded a paradigm shift that allowed concert dance to resonate with other forms of African-American expression, including big band jazz.

Personal life

Ailey was known to be generous, magnanimous and loving and was adored by a multitude of devoted friends. He also served as a father figure to his dancers. His personal and professional lives however, were frequently dogged with problems. His romantic life was rocky and often abusive and later life he often employed male sex-workers. He also made poor personal choices in who to entrust with management and money matters. Towards the end of his life, Ailey was increasingly crippled by arthritis, and dependent on lithium as a mood regulator.

Alvin Ailey died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58. To spare his mother the social stigma of his death of AIDS, Ailey asked his doctor to announce that he had died of terminal blood Dyscrasia.


  • Cinco Latinos, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Kaufmann Concert Hall, New York City, 1958.
  • Blues Suite (also see below), Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre,Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1958.
  • Revelations, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Kaufmann ConcertHall, 1960.
  • Three for Now, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Clark Center, New York City, 1960.
  • Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Clark Center, 1960.
  • (With Carmen De Lavallade) Roots of the Blues, Lewisohn Stadium, New York City, 1961.
  • Hermit Songs, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1963.
  • Ariadne, Harkness Ballet, Opera Comique, Paris, 1965.
  • Macumba, Harkness Ballet, Gran Teatro del Liceo, Barcelona, Spain,1966, then produced as Yemanja, Chicago Opera House, 1967.
  • Quintet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Church Hill Theatre,Edinburgh Festival, Scotland, 1968, then Billy Rose Theatre, New York City, 1969.
  • Masekela Language, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, American Dance Festival, New London, CT, 1969, then Brooklyn Academy ofMusic, New York City, 1969.
  • Streams (also see below), Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1970.
  • Gymnopedies, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Brooklyn Academyof Music, 1970.
  • The River, American Ballet Theatre, New York State Theatre, 1970.
  • Flowers, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, ANTA Theatre, 1971.
  • Myth, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York City Center, 1971.
  • Choral Dances, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York City Center, 1971.
  • Cry, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York City Center, 1971.
  • Mingus Dances, Robert Joffrey Company, New York City Center, 1971.
  • Mary Lou's Mass, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York CityCenter, 1971.
  • Song for You, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York City Center, 1972.
  • The Lark Ascending, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York City Center, 1972.
  • Love Songs, Alvin Ailey City Center Dance Theater, New York City Center, 1972.
  • Shaken Angels, Tenth New York Dance Festival, Delacorte Theatre, New York City, 1972.
  • Sea Change, American Ballet Theatre, Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington, DC, 1972, then New York City Center, 1973.
  • Hidden Rites, Alvin Ailey City Center Dance Theater, New York CityCenter, 1973.
  • Archipelago, 1971,
  • The Mooche, 1975,
  • Night Creature, 1975,
  • Pas de "Duke," 1976,
  • Memoria, 1979,
  • Phases, 1980
  • Landscape, 1981.


Acting and Dancing

  • (Broadway debut) House of Flowers, Alvin Theatre, New YorkCity, 1954 - Actor and dancer.
  • The Carefree Tree, 1955 - Actor and dancer.
  • Sing, Man, Sing, 1956 - Actor and dancer.
  • Show Boat, Marine Theatre, Jones Beach, New York, 1957 - Actor and dancer.
  • Jamaica, Imperial Theatre, New York City, 1957 - Actor and lead dance.
  • Call Me By My Rightful Name, One Sheridan Square Theatre, 1961 - Paul.
  • Ding Dong Bell, Westport Country Playhouse, 1961 - Negro Political Leader.
  • Blackstone Boulevard, Talking to You, produced as double-bill in 2 by Saroyan, East End Theatre, New York City, 1961-62.
  • Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, Booth Theatre, 1962 - Clarence Morris.

Stage Choreography

  • Carmen Jones, Theatre in the Park, 1959.
  • Jamaica, Music Circus, Lambertville, New Jersey, 1959.
  • Dark of the Moon, Lenox Hill Playhouse, 1960.
  • (And director) African Holiday (musical), Apollo Theatre, New YorkCity, 1960, then produced at Howard Theatre, Washington, DC, 1960.
  • Feast of Ashes (ballet), Robert Joffrey Company, Teatro San Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal, 1962, then produced at New York City Center, 1971.
  • Anthony and Cleopatra, Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City, 1966.
  • La Strada, first produced at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 1969.
  • (With others) Mass, Metropolitan Opera House, 1972, then John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia Academy of Music, both 1972.
  • Carmen, Metropolitan Opera, 1972.
  • Choreographed ballet, Lord Byron (opera; also see below), Juilliard School of Music, New York City, 1972.
  • Four Saints in Three Acts, Piccolo Met, New York City, 1973.


  • (With William Hairston) Jerico-Jim Crow, The Sanctuary, New York City, 1964, then Greenwich Mews Theatre, 1968.



  • (Film debut) Dancer, Lydia Bailey, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1952.
  • Dancer, Carmen Jones, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1954.


  • Choreographer (with others), The Turning Point, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1977.



  • Dancer (with Horton Company), Party at Ciro's (also see below), 1954.
  • Dancer (with Horton Company), Red Skelton Show (also see below), CBS, 1954.
  • (With Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre) Dave Garroway Today Show, NBC, 1959.
  • (With Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre) Look Up and Live, CBS, 1962.
  • (With Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre) Camera Three, CBS, 1962-63.
  • America's Tribute to Bob Hope, NBC, 1988.
  • A Duke Named Ellington (also known as American Masters), PBS, 1988.
  • The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 1988.
  • 16th Annual Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, syndicated, 1989.
  • Bill Cosby Salutes Alvin Ailey, NBC, 1989.

Television Choreography

  • The Jack Benny Show, CBS, 1954.
  • Red Skelton Show, CBS, 1954.
  • Parade, CBC, 1964.
  • Alvin Ailey: Memories and Visions, PBS, 1974.
  • "Blues Suite," Three by Three, PBS, 1985.
  • "Revelations," The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 1988.
  • "Revelations," Bill Cosby Salutes Alvin Ailey, NBC, 1989.
  • "For Bird--With Love," Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Steps Ahead, PBS, 1991.
  • Also contributed choreography for Party at Ciro's, 1954.
  • Choreographed Ailey Celebrates Ellington, 1974 and 1976, Solo for Mingus, 1979, and Memoria, 1979.