Alvin Ailey

By The Black Archives of Mid-America

Alvin Ailey (January 5, 1931 – December 1, 1989) was an African-American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. He is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th-century concert dance.

Alvin Ailey, hands intertwinedThe Black Archives of Mid-America

The Man

Alvin Ailey as a boxer in the one-act play "Talking To You"The Black Archives of Mid-America

Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas, in 1931. He and his mother moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1942 where in 1949 he entered the Lester Horton Dance Studio. Ailey assumed the role of artistic director at the Horton Dance Studio following Horton’s death in 1953.

Alvin Ailey instructing dance classThe Black Archives of Mid-America

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958. The company still exists and continues the tradition of eclecticism that was Ailey's hallmark.

Alvin Ailey left us with 79 original choreographed works, many focusing on African American cultural and artistic themes.

Alvin Ailey attending a Gala CelebrationThe Black Archives of Mid-America

During Ailey’s lifetime, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater traveled throughout the United States and around the world, including government sponsored trips to East Asia in 1962, Russia in 1970, and the People’s Republic of China in 1985.

After four decades in the dance world, Ailey died of AIDS in 1989. aged 58.

Judith Jamison and Kelvin RotardierThe Black Archives of Mid-America

The Dancers

Judith Jamison performing "Fanga" by Lois GreenfieldThe Black Archives of Mid-America

The company was noted for its inclusion of dancers of many different races and backgrounds. Ailey felt very strongly that dance should be for all people.

Judith Jamison performing "Fanga" by Lois GreenfieldThe Black Archives of Mid-America

Judith Jamison was one of the Theater's most celebrated dancers in the 1960s and 70s. Following Ailey's death in 1989 she served as the Artistic Director of the company for more than two decades.

Dudley Williams, Alvin Ailey DancerThe Black Archives of Mid-America

Dudley Williams had an astonishing career at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he danced from 1963 to 2005. He passed away in June of 2015 at age 76.

Keith McDaniel in "Spectrum" by Choo San Goh.The Black Archives of Mid-America

Keith McDaniel was one of Alvin Ailey's favorite dancers to choreograph for during his tenure at the Theater in the 1970s and 80s. McDaniel later passed away at age 38.

Tina Yuan and Dudley Williams in "Night Creature" by Alvin Ailey. Photo by Alan Bergman. by Alan BergmanThe Black Archives of Mid-America

The Performances

Scene from "Revelations" by Alvin Ailey. Photo by Jack Mitchell. by Jack MitchellThe Black Archives of Mid-America

"Revelations" (pictured here) is perhaps Ailey's most significant work. It was first produced in 1960, and features dance accompanied by gospel, spirituals and blues music.

Scene from "Revelations" dance performance, From the collection of: The Black Archives of Mid-America
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Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; "Revelations", From the collection of: The Black Archives of Mid-America
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Pearl Primus, choreographer performing "Fanga" by Susan CookThe Black Archives of Mid-America

"Fanga" is a performance choreographed by anthropologist Pearl Primus and serves as an interpretation of a traditional Liberian invocation to the earth and sky.

Alvin Ailey American Dance TheaterThe Black Archives of Mid-America

Alvin Ailey CollectionThe Black Archives of Mid-America

Judith Jamison in "Cry"The Black Archives of Mid-America

Ailey's creation, "Cry" was a stunning solo piece, famously danced by Judith Jamison. He dedicated the piece "to all black women everywhere, especially our mothers."

Judith Jamison in "Cry", From the collection of: The Black Archives of Mid-America
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"Cry"

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: "The Lark Ascending"The Black Archives of Mid-America

"The Lark Ascending"

"The Lark Ascending", From the collection of: The Black Archives of Mid-America
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"The Lark Ascending"

Tina Yuan and Dudley Williams in "Night Creature" by Alvin Ailey. Photo by Alan Bergman., Alan Bergman, From the collection of: The Black Archives of Mid-America
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"Night Creature" by Alvin Ailey. Photo by Alan Bergman.

Three Black Kings by Alvin Ailey. Photo by Johan Elbers. by Johan ElbersThe Black Archives of Mid-America

"Three Black Kings" was another 1974 collaboration with Duke Ellington, which the great composer wrote from his deathbed.

"Three Black Kings" by Johan ElbersThe Black Archives of Mid-America

Three Black Kings by Alvin Ailey. Photo by Johan Elbers.

Alvin Ailey seated on stairsThe Black Archives of Mid-America

Alvin Ailey's Legacy

Alvin Ailey sitting in an outdoor amphitheater in Athens, Greece.The Black Archives of Mid-America

Alvin Ailey left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern dance, both with his choreography and the ongoing work of his dance company.

His combination of classical and modern styles, coupled with his use of diverse dancers brought dance to entirely new audiences and continues to do so to this day.

Credits: Story

From the collection of The Black Archives of Mid-America, mostly the Allan Gray Family Personal Papers of Alvin Ailey, on extended loan from Mr. Gray.

The Kansas City Public Library contributed technical oversight and metadata for this exhibit.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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