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Alvin Ailey – an Activist and American Choreographer Research Paper


Alvin Ailey was an activist and American choreographer who established Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in 1958 in New York City. He was born in 1931 in Roger Texas and died on 1st December, 1989 with HIV/Aids. Ailey popularized modern dance and is credited for revolutionizing African-American membership in dance concerts in 20th century.

Ailey’s stunning success in choreography is believed to have contributed to modern dance since it is popularly seen in modern dance performance. Ailey’s dance theatre was nicknamed ‘International Cultural Ambassador’ due to his extensive touring in international globe (Gruen 115).

His theatre enchanted millions of people around the world ever since it was found in 1958. The world’s view on American music, dance and African-American artistic changed when Alvin first performed. He performed with high-energy which stirred the souls of many people. Today, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in America explores on Ailey traditions and contemporary grounds.

Ailey’s desire and interest on arts and drawing can be traced back in his childhood when he discovered his potential in dancing while still in junior high school. Ailey used to sing spiritual songs in glee club and also wrote poetry which demonstrated his talent in languages. Ailey used to attend shows at Orpheum Theatre and Lincoln Theatre which inspired his vision of becoming choreographer.

However, he was greatly influenced into choreographer by Lester Horton who taught him how to dance. While still in high school, Ailey and other students went on a trip to see Carmen De Lavallade who introduced him to Lester Horton studio in Hollywood (Goodman 110). Horton majorly influenced Ailey into choreography as he was both his mentor and advisor. Horton gave him the techniques and foundations with which Ailey managed to grow as an artist.

Alvin Ailey first performed with a group of young modern black dancers in 1958 and this led to the birth of his Dance Theatre which grew into a big premier dance company in America.

Ailey’s main vision with this company was to enrich American modern dance legacy by expressing black cultural integration. Ailey drew his “blood memories” in Texas with his dance through spiritual, blues and gospel inspiration. Ailey’s choreographic work titled “Revelations” was a classic masterpiece which expresses what he experienced during his childhood.

The dance is a piece of modern American dance based majorly on African-American religious legacy. “Revelation” became a great success to the company as it contained a series of both spiritual and gospel songs (Gruen 98). The dance depicted how black Americans worship embracing group prayer, ritual baptism, private communion and inverted moments of prayer. The company managed to earn a lot of money from the performance.

Alvin Ailey managed to create a total of 79 ballets when he was still alive. He owes his success in choreography to all those who helped him achieve his dreams and make them come true. Ailey’s company is still in existence today and it still promote Ailey’s work by presenting his past imperative works and also they have commissioned new ideas in the company.

More than 170 performances have been conducted by 65 choreographers in Alvin Ailey dance Theatre since his death in 1989. Judith Jamison a brilliant and talented young dancer who was discovered by Ailey in 1965 has continued promoting Ailey’s vision in chorography. Jamison was assigned as the Artistic Director of Alvin Theatre after Ailey died in 1989 (Long 102).

Ailey’s choreographic work was a vibrant and dynamic mix that grew out from his preceding training in modern dance, African dance, jazz and ballet techniques. A complete theoretical practice was implemented by Ailey where the dancers wore complete costumes, make up and lighting during performance.

This practice still exist today in many dance theatre whereby the dancers put on similar customs, make-up and lighting when they perform. Ailey presented a work which was emotionally appealing to express the anger and pain of most African-Americans (Emery 92). Ailey’s style was Blue Suites which he and his dancers wore while performing in theatres.

“Feast of Ashes” was a chorographic work that was performed by several modern dancers who worked with Ailey. This work also became successful as it drew people’s attention in 1962. Ailey also contributed several dances in New York some of which he produced at Samuel Barber and Lincoln centre during inauguration of Metropolitan Opera in 1966.

The River” was another work created by Ailey in 1970. It fused jazz dance in American theatres and also introduced the ballet technique in the country (Mazo & Susan 122). Later in 1971, Ailey formed a stage for Leonard Bernstein which greatly influenced many people. This led to the opening of the recently built Kennedy centre in Washington DC.

Alvin Ailey received many honours following his distinct performances which evolved into great genres. His great work in choreography led him to create more than 50 companies in Paris, America, London, Joffrey Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet (Goodman 119). Ailey was also awarded honorary doctorates by many universities all over the world for producing fine arts.

Alvin Ailey is and will always be termed and known as the king of modern dance in the world. He showed his strong love and faith in black community through his works. Ailey believed in his African roots and expressed this through his songs and dance which can be felt in the theatres by the audience. Ailey reflected on the black struggles in America and their revolution in his work.

Works Cited

Emery, Lynne. Black dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. Palo Alto: Calif, 1972.

Goodman, Saul. Brief Biographies: Alvin Ailey. New York: Dance Magazine, 1958.

Gruen, John. Interview with Alvin Ailey. Transcript of interview, collection of New York Public Library, 1972.

Long, Richard. The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York: Ballet Review, 1989.

Mazo, Joseph & Susan, Cook. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. New York: Free Press, 1978.

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Wiley, A. (2019, May 7). Alvin Ailey - an Activist and American Choreographer [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/alvin-ailey/

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Wiley, Archer. "Alvin Ailey - an Activist and American Choreographer." IvyPanda, 7 May 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/alvin-ailey/.

1. Archer Wiley. "Alvin Ailey - an Activist and American Choreographer." IvyPanda (blog), May 7, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/alvin-ailey/.


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Wiley, Archer. "Alvin Ailey - an Activist and American Choreographer." IvyPanda (blog), May 7, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/alvin-ailey/.

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Wiley, Archer. 2019. "Alvin Ailey - an Activist and American Choreographer." IvyPanda (blog), May 7, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/alvin-ailey/.

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Wiley, A. (2019) 'Alvin Ailey - an Activist and American Choreographer'. IvyPanda, 7 May.

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