By the time he died in 1989, Alvin Ailey had secured a firm place in dance history. His work, well received around the world, regularly received numerous accolades, including an astounding 61 curtain calls in Hamburg, Germany, in 1964 for his signature piece, "Revelations." But despite positive reception, in all his years choreographing and dancing, Ailey never felt secure about his work.
In an interview the year before his death the same year he was one of an elite few honored with a Kennedy Center award for lifetime contribution to American culture through the performing arts he said, "I felt that no matter what I did, what ballet I made, how beautifully I danced, it was not good enough. ... That's the worst thing about racism. It tears down your insides so that no matter what you achieve, no matter what you write or choreograph, you feel it's not quite enough." The irony, of course, is that Ailey's work was more than enough, as evidenced by the survival of his company, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and its offspring, Ailey II, which performs in Richmond at the Landmark Theater March 10.
Ailey, who was born in 1931 in Texas into a poor family, grew up in a time in America when racism was widespread. Only when he moved to Los Angeles did he see blacks perform onstage in Katherine Dunham's otherwise white dance company before a largely white audience. The event stunned him. Yet it wasn't until 1958, after dancing with Lester Horton and performing on Broadway, that Ailey established his own company in New York. His initial troupe was all black, primarily because he knew so few white dancers. Within a few years, however, he purposefully set out to integrate his company.
Ailey's intention in dance over the years remained consistent: to reach across racial and economic divisions and to share modern dance with as broad an audience as possible with work that blended ballet, modern dance and jazz. With the creation of "Revelations" and other work, he established a solid reputation and a company that grew from eight to 29 dancers. For years, however, success had little connection to financial rewards. In 1970, the company was invited to the Soviet Union, yet it was broke. It sent out a press release about its imminent demise.
Sylvia Waters, who danced with the company at the time, says the response from supporters was phenomenal. "The forces rallied. It was tremendous," she says. "We got assistance from the United States Government."
A few years later, Ailey established a dance school and eventually a second-string company to help develop new work and respond to constant performance requests Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, now called Ailey II. Waters is its artistic director. "It was a way to stay with the company, to stay with Ailey, and to tap into strengths I really didn't know I had," she says. "As it grew ... into a performing entity, I got to work with dancers and choreographers. ... I grew, I adapted, and my relationship with the company remained very, very strong."
"At the foundation of Ailey II," explains Waters, "is the legacy of Ailey, his spirit and his sense of humanity with art at the core." Ailey II travels extensively, performing Ailey classics as well as works by company members. The company, meant as a steppingstone for emerging dancers, choreographers, lighting designers and others interested in dance productions, draws from many who come through the Ailey school. Members stay one to three years tops. It is an opportunity, says Waters "to let the dancer know what's necessary before entering the real world."
Included in the upcoming Landmark Theater show is Ailey's highly celebrated "Revelations," a work in three parts, done to spirituals sung by soloists and a choir, including the joyous "Rocka My Soul." A tribute to African-American culture, this jubilant and sorrowful dance, created in 1960, is rooted in Ailey's boyhood ritual of regular attendance at church in Texas. In the original program notes, Ailey calls the work a "suite [that] explores the motivations and emotions of 'American Negro religious music.'"
Also included is "Escapades," which Ailey created in 1983, but with his company constantly on the move, was unable to get performed until 10 years later. With music by Max Roach, this is a fiery blend of jazz, modern and ballet. The third work of the evening is "Sensory Feast," an abstract, somewhat dark, athletic piece created by Francesca Harper, with music by Rolff Elmer.
Waters is grateful for the dancers and for the ability to continue Ailey's legacy. For her, life is nothing without art. "Art is vital to our well-being and survival," she says. "... Art informs us, inspires us, teaches us and live performance helps us communicate as a society. Dance is a language, one of our first languages. And it's exciting."
Water's excitement and commitment to dance and to Ailey's vision hold weight. Having spent the past 26 years as artistic director for the company and additional years as one of its dancers, she's had the rare privilege to work with one of this country's most extraordinary choreographers and the dancers he attracted, and to share her experience with a few
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