Alvin Ailey was a choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. His most well-known dance is Revelations, a celebratory study of religious spirit. Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988. One year later, on December 1, 1989, Ailey died of AIDS in New York City.
Early on in Life
Born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas, Alvin Ailey grew to become one of the leading figures in 20th century contemporary dance. His mother was only a teenager when he was born and his father left the family early on. He was raised poor in the small Texas town of Navasota. Ailey later on drew inspiration from the black church services he attended along with the music he heard at the local dance hall. At the age of 12, he ditched Texas for Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Ailey turned out to be a talented student in several ways. He excelled at different languages and athletics. After seeing the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform, Ailey was influenced to go after dancing. He began studying modern day dance with Lester Horton in 1949. He became a member of Horton’s dance company the following year.
In 1954, Ailey created his Broadway debut in Truman Capote’s short-lived musical House of Flowers. The next year, he furthermore made an appearance in The Carefree Tree. Ailey served as the lead dancer in another Broadway musical, Jamaica, starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban in 1957. While in New York, Ailey also had an opportunity to study dance with Martha Graham and acting with Stella Adler.
Ailey achieved his best fame with his own dance company, which he set up in 1958. That exact same year, he debuted Blues Suite, a piece which acquired from his southern roots. Another of his major early works was Revelations, which drew inspiration from the African American music of his youth. The blues, spirituals and gospel songs all informed this dance piece. Based on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater website, Revelations originated from Ailey’s “‘blood memories’ of his childhood in rural Texas and the Baptist Church.”
In the 1960s, Ailey took his company on the highway. The U.S. State Department financed his tour, which helped create his international reputation. He stopped performing in the mid-1960s, but he continued to choreograph several masterpieces. Ailey’s Masakela Language, which probed the experience being black in South Africa, premiered in 1969. He also created the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center-now called the Ailey School-that very same year.
In 1974, Ailey used the music of Duke Ellington as the backdrop for Night Creature. He also extended his dance company by developing the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble that same year. During his long career, Ailey choreographed close to 80 ballets.
In 1988, Alvin Ailey was honored by the Kennedy Center for his efforts to the arts.
This esteemed accolade came near the end of his life. Ailey passed away at the age of 58 on December 1, 1989, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. During the time, The New York Times documented that he had suffered from “terminal blood dyscrasia, a rare disorder that impacts the bone marrow and red blood cells.” It was later revealed that Ailey had died of AIDS.
The dance world mourned the passing of one of its great pioneers. Alvin 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.”
In spite of his untimely death, Ailey is still an important figure in the arts through the ballets he created and the organizations he founded. The dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have performed for more than 20 million individuals all over the world and numerous others have experienced their work through several television broadcasts.