Alvin Ailey: The Choreographer Series

5th January 2022

Alvin Ailey: The Choreographer Series
Maria Hanlon

Maria Hanlon

Alvin Ailey is a name you need to know as he is one of the leading figures in 20th Century modern dance. We’re about to fill you in on his life, work and famous dance company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. 

Who Is Alvin Ailey?

Alvin Ailey was an exceptional choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. It was an incredibly popular, modern dance ensemble that popularized modern dance around the globe thanks to extensive world tours. Alvin Ailey’s most famous dance is ‘Revelations’, a celebratory study of religious spirit which we’ll get on to later. 

alvin ailey

When Was Alvin Ailey Born?

He was born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas and grew up in the small town of Navasota. Ailey was inspired by the church services he attended as a child as well as the music he heard at the local dance hall. At the age of 12, he left Texas for Los Angeles.

In LA, Ailey demonstrated his talents, excelling at languages and athletics. After seeing the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform, Ailey decided to pursue dancing. He began studying modern dance in 1949 with Lester Horton and joined Horton’s dance company the following year.

dancers on stage

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was born from a performance in March 1958 at the 92nd Street in New York City. Led by Alvin Ailey and a group of young African American modern dancers, that performance changed the perception of American dance forever. 

Ailey’s company performed for over 25 million people at theatres across 48 states and 71 countries on six continents – as well as millions more through TV broadcasts, film screenings, and online platforms.

In 2008, a U.S. Congressional resolution designated the Company as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world” that celebrates the African American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage.

When Ailey began creating dances, he 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, ‘Revelations’, which we’re going to explore next.

Today, the company continues Ailey’s mission by staging important works of the past and present. In total, more than 235 works by over 90 choreographers have been part of the Ailey company’s impressive repertory.

alvin ailey

Alvin Ailey Revelations

“Using African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul” –

Revelations has become a cultural treasure, loved by generations of fans. Ailey said that one of America’s richest treasures was the African-American cultural heritage— “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.” This classic is a tribute to that tradition, born out of the Ailey’s memories of his childhood in Texas and the Baptist Church. 

Since its premiere in 1960, the ballet has been performed continuously around the world, transcending barriers of faith and nationality, and appealing to universal emotions, making it the most widely seen modern dance work in the world.

alvin ailey dancers

How Did Alvin Ailey Die?

Ailey sadly died at the age of 58 on December 1, 1989, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. At the time, The New York Times reported that he had suffered from “terminal blood dyscrasia, a rare disorder that affects the bone marrow and red blood cells.” It was later revealed that Ailey had died of AIDS. 

The dance world was devastated by the passing of one of its most gifted pioneers. Ailey “had a big heart and a tremendous love of the dance,” dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov told The New York Times, adding, “His work made an important contribution to American culture.” Despite his death, Ailey continues to be a prominent figure in the dance world, through the ballets he created and the organizations he founded. 

Alvin Ailey Quotes

Here are some of Alvin Ailey’s most famous and inspirational quotes:

“Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.”

“The creative process is not controlled by a switch you can simply turn on or off; it’s with you all the time.”

“I wanted to explore black culture, and I wanted that culture to be a revelation.”

“I’m interested in putting something on stage that will have a very wide appeal without being condescending; that will reach an audience and make it part of the dance; that will get everybody in the theater.”

“Choreography is mentally draining, but there’s a pleasure in getting into the studio with the dancers and the music.”

dancers on stage

That’s Everything You Need To Know About Alvin Ailey

We’ve come to the end of the class for today! We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the super-talented Alvin Ailey and his incredible contribution to dance. 

If you’d like to read more on famous choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Akram Khan, George Balanchine and Martha Graham, check out the rest of our Choreographer Series.

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