Ailey dance troupe celebrates its founder’s footwork

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When Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater takes to the stage at the New York City Center for its 60th anniversary opening Wednesday night, it will have something of an unexpected guest.

Namely, Alvin Ailey himself.

The founder of the company, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, will of course not be there physically. Instead, the ensemble will pay homage to him with a brief multimedia piece, “Becoming Ailey”, which was produced for the occasion. It shows historical footage of Ailey’s dance and includes sound clips of the choreographer talking about himself and his artistic vision.

“I create movement,” Ailey says in the media room.

But in some ways, this tribute is a departure from the Ailey company, which has often chosen not to shine the spotlight on its founder, in keeping with Ailey’s ideal.

Even as he built the first American company anchored in the black experience and created his iconic body of work, from “Revelations” to “Cry”, the choreographer aimed to draw more attention to his dancers than to himself- even with one of the members of his company. , Judith Jamison, succeeding him as artistic director. And unlike many founders of modern dance companies, Ailey has welcomed other choreographers into the fold.

Today, the company, which has consistently performed Ailey’s works throughout its six-decade history, is considering how to further promote its namesake.

A dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearses a multimedia play called “Becoming Ailey” at the New York City Center on November 25, 2018.


Photo:

Sarah Blesener for The Wall Street Journal

As part of its 60th anniversary season at City Center, the company, now under the artistic direction of Robert Battle, offers two world premieres of works to pay homage to Ailey: Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus”, the first ballet in two acts in the history of the company and “The Call” by Ronald K. Brown. In addition, the company offers various programs entirely Ailey and offers selected performances of “Revelations”, its most famous piece, with a live accompaniment by a choir and a gospel orchestra.

Beyond the Stage, the Ailey organization is involved in a project by Hollywood studio Fox Searchlight to bringing Ailey’s life story to the screen.

And what a story it is. Ailey was born in Texas and raised in California. He found his niche in dance as a teenager and turned professional in his twenties, dancing on Broadway in shows featuring greats like Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey. In 1958, he founded his own company, which during his lifetime became a global phenomenon.

Today, the Ailey organization, which has an annual budget of $ 40 million, encompasses not only Ailey’s main company, but also a secondary company for young dancers. He runs a school in New York and educational programs across the country. The organization recently completed a $ 50 million fundraising campaign, which allowed it to expand its studio and facilities on Manhattan’s West Side, the Joan Weill Center for Dance, among other initiatives.

Ailey’s officials say the effort to draw attention to the founding choreographer comes in large part from the realization that there is a generation of dance patrons who recognize the man’s name, but hardly more.

“Maybe half the audience doesn’t know what he looked like, what he looked like,” said Masazumi Chaya, associate artistic director of the company, who joined the troupe in 1972 as a dancer.

At the same time, others close to the company say the time has come to draw attention to Ailey as they see parallels between today’s America and the America in which the choreographer founded his group 60 years ago. As a black dancer trying to make her way through the dawn of the civil rights movement, Ailey has faced many challenges.

Today, the obstacles are still there for individuals of color, said Mr. Harris, the black choreographer featured in the 60th anniversary season. And Ailey “is still the flagship,” he added.

Write to Charles Passy at [email protected]

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