Groundbreaking, beautiful and unapologetically Black: the everlasting vision of Alvin Ailey
Editor’s note: Alvin Ailey died on Dec. 1, 1989, from complications due to AIDS. He was 58. Ailey’s quotes in this story are pulled from old interviews, his incomplete autobiography, as well as footage from the documentary “Ailey.”
Evenings spent watching adults unwind in segregated dance halls. Joyous spirituals sung in a rural Texas church. Watching professional Afro-Caribbean dancers on stage for the first time. In the earliest days, picking cotton at sunset; later, feeling the collective racial trauma of the murder of Fred Hampton.
These snapshots belong to iconic choreographer Alvin Ailey. They make up what he referred to as his “blood memories”: formative Black experiences that lived and thrummed deep in his bones and shared a universal story across generations. These memories influenced some of his most famous works, such as “Revelations” and “Blues Suite,” and laid the groundwork for his vision of Ailey II, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s second company, which will perform in Macky on Feb. 16.
From a lack of representation…
Born to a single mother in rural Texas during the Great Depression, Ailey didn’t encounter professional theatre or ballet until he was a teenager living in Los Angeles. Though he was immediately awestruck by professional dance, he initially didn’t see a place for himself in that world.
Ailey felt the sting many young artists still feel today—a lack of representation on stage of any artist who looked like him. Heading to L.A. concert halls as often as he could, it still would be several years before he witnessed his first professional performance by a Black dancer. When he finally did, he was inspired to usher in a new era of choreography.
“I wanted to show Black people that they could come down to these concert halls, and there was a part of their culture being done there. And that it was universal,” he once said.
…To representing the human experience
That duality, unique in its Blackness but universal in its humanity, was critical to Ailey’s vision for the future. Of his art, Ailey said: “I feel an obligation to use Black dancers because there must be more opportunities for them. But not because I’m a Black choreographer talking to Black people.”
In fact, while Ailey loved creating work and opportunities for his community, he sometimes confessed to resenting how he was perceived in a systemically racist dance community.
“The problem is that if you’re a Black anything in this country, we want to put you into a bag. People sometimes say, ‘Well, you know, why is he doing that? Why can’t he stick to the blues or to the spirituals?’ I’m also a 20th century American. And I respond to Bach and Ellington and Denswell Britain and Simon Barber. And why shouldn’t I?”
Because of this, Ailey’s work (both the person’s and the company’s) is political… And it isn’t.
“I certainly feel like my art is to express my feelings on all levels. But not all the works are political … They certainly reflect my feelings about what goes on in this country. I mean, I can’t get over that, I’m a Black man living in this!”
Ailey’s lasting vision
In 1958, Ailey founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience. He went on to establish The Ailey School in 1969 and Ailey II in 1974.
“The reason I do what I do now is because of a wonderful man [choreographer Lester Horton] who made me feel—a young Black man at 18 in Los Angeles living in the ghetto—that I was meaningful, that I meant something,” he said. “It’s an atmosphere of giving, of love, of warmth. It’s about watching young people grow … I want it to be easier than it was for me.”
Nearly 50 years on, Ailey II has developed a worldwide reputation for an aesthetic of effusive passion. Comprising a typically-younger company of up-and-coming multiracial dancers who perform works from emerging choreographers, the ensemble carries on Ailey’s early dreams of a more inclusive dance world.
Meagan King, who started in the Ailey school at 16 and is now dancing her first season with Ailey II, said, “Alvin Ailey is the reason why I wanted to dance. I don’t think I would be a dancer if I hadn’t seen his work on YouTube. I was able to feel the dancers’ energy and heart and passion through the screen and that was how I knew it was a place for me. Now, it feels like home here. Especially as I step into my first year as a professional dancer, I’m really stepping into my power and I have a whole team and village behind me to support me in that.”
Francesca Harper, Ailey II’s artistic director as of September 2021, also grew up in the halls of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where her mother worked as director of the school for many years. Harper knew Ailey personally before his death in 1989, and she shares something of his essence and vision personally. Speaking to the New York Times, Ailey artistic director Robert Battle said of Harper:
“She’s an inspiration for being bold and trying different things. The other part of it is just her as a teacher: She has that nurturing quality that is so important. I think she has the right amount of empathy, but discipline, to impart.”
Ailey II’s artistry
A look at Ailey II’s current repertory places this bold empathy front and center.
The company is touring across the U.S. with stories of resilience in the face of a breaking point, charismatic but flawed leaders, the importance of community, and the vulnerability that comes from loving after great loss. The Boulder performance closes with a piece by Harper herself, entitled “Freedom Series.”
Of the work, dancer Elijah Lancaster said: “For ‘Freedom Series,’ we’re working with light orbs. The story encapsulates faith, your memories, your roots. It’s about not forgetting where you come from, even when there’s so much going on. You always have that light—that orb—inside of you. Knowing that that’s your person, you can always bring that out without letting anybody dim your light. It’s deep, but it’s also very abstract.”
“For me, a sense of community seems to be a common thread line between all our pieces,” added Ailey II dancer Hannah Richardson. “Maybe it was unintentional, but after 18 months of being isolated, we needed to come back sensitive to each other and feeding off each other’s energies. It has almost been like a meditation.”
The rep features choreographers from Harlem to Atlanta, from South Africa to Jamaica, and many of the pieces are definitively rooted in Black (and often queer) culture. But all of them, like Ailey’s original work, are ultimately universal. These meditations aren’t just one choreographer’s blood memories. They are humanity’s. As Ailey once said, the work—like our history itself—promises to be “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant. But always hopeful.”
Ailey II performs in Macky Auditorium on Feb. 16. Tickets start at just $24.