Who was Alvin Ailey?

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday December 12, 2007
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Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey

December 1, 1989 (18 years ago this month): Modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey dies of AIDS-related complications in New York City.

Modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey is recognized for his lasting impact on the American arts landscape, which he achieved despite struggles with mental illness and internal conflict about his sexuality.

Ailey was born in January 1931 in Rogers, Texas, during the segregated Jim Crow era. Abandoned by his father as a baby, he was raised by his impoverished teenage mother, who picked cotton and worked as a housecleaner. Shy and artistic, Ailey was uncomfortably aware of his attraction to other boys at an early age, but his strapping physique spared him from harassment.

In the early 1940s, Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles; she remarried a few years later and had another son, which Ailey regarded as a betrayal. Ailey developed a love for dance after seeing the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo on a school field trip, and later a performance by Katherine Dunham. Through a classmate, he met and began studying with Lester Horton, who created the first racially integrated dance company in America.

After graduating from high school in 1948, Ailey wavered between dancing and attending college to become a teacher. While at the University of California at Los Angeles, he began an intimate relationship with fellow student David McReynolds, later a prominent socialist and anti-war activist. Ailey later transferred to San Francisco State College to study Romance languages, but he continued to dance, performing at a nightclub with Maya Angelou (then a dance student). Eventually, he decided to leave school and join Horton's troupe.

After Horton's death in 1953, Ailey was named director of the company. A year later, however, he accepted an invitation to join a Broadway production of Truman Capote's House of Flowers and relocated to New York City. He rented an apartment at the edge of Greenwich Village at a time when the black civil rights movement was taking off and the first stirrings of the gay movement were being felt.

Ailey studied with dance masters including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and he took roles in several Broadway productions and Hollywood films. His work was well-received – dance critic Doris Hering likened him to "a caged lion full of lashing power that he can contain or release at will" – but jobs for black dancers were scarce, and he often subsisted on unemployment and meager earnings as a dance instructor.

To offer more opportunities for black talent, Ailey started his own company – soon dubbed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – which made its debut in March 1958. That same year, he choreographed his well-regarded Blues Suite, which combined blues music with jazz, African folk dance, and classical ballet techniques. He followed two years later with Revelations , a dance suite set to Negro spiritual music, which brought him widespread fame.

In 1962, the U.S. State Department began sponsoring the AAADT on international tours (which Ailey suspected this was an attempt to counter America's racist image abroad). Ailey integrated the company in 1963, saying he wanted to work with the most talented dancers regardless of race. Ironically, while Ailey's work was enthusiastically embraced around the world, for years he had trouble scraping together funding to perform at home.

Even as Ailey continued to develop pieces for AAADT, he also created works for other prominent companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet, as well as for special occasions such as a bicentennial tribute to Duke Ellington. Ailey mentored several promising young performers, including ballerina Judith Jamison (who succeeded Ailey as AAADT artistic director), and started a dance school, a touring repertory company, and dance camps for inner-city youth.

Despite his professional success, Ailey's personal life was beset with difficulties. Though his proclivities were an open secret, he rarely spoke of his personal relationships and seemed ill at ease with his sexuality. In the mid-1960s, he was in a romantic relationship with a young white schoolteacher who helped manage the dance company, but this ended after a couple of years.

Thereafter, Ailey spent his time socializing in gay bars and hanging out with street people, and he had numerous short-term liaisons with young men who his friends felt took advantage of his generosity. Ailey suffered from bipolar disorder, which worsened over time, as did his drinking and drug use. In 1980, he was arrested for causing a disturbance at the Columbia University residence of a former paramour, which landed him in Bellevue hospital.

In his 50s by the time the AIDS crisis struck New York City, Ailey contracted the disease. Though increasingly ill, he continued traveling to oversee productions and receive awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1988. Ailey died on December 1, 1989, from AIDS-related complications (though he asked his doctor to record the cause of death as blood discrasia).

In a Washington Post obituary, Alan Kriegsman wrote that Ailey was "a missionary and a prophet of the African-American heritage in dance." In his memory, a stretch of West 61st Street was renamed "Alvin Ailey Way," but his greatest legacy is the AAADT, which has performed for more than 20 million people in some 70 countries.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at mailto:PastOut@qsyndicate.com.

For further reading

Ailey, Alvin, and A. Peter Bailey. 1995. Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey (Carol Publishing).

DeFrantz, Thomas. 2004. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture (Oxford University Press).

Dunning, Jennifer. 1996. Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance (Perseus Books).