Alvin Ailey: Modern Dance King Fifty Years Later

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Yesterday I had the honor of attending the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater North American Tour performance in Chicago. I was both inspired and saddened by the event. I took my best friend, an avid dancer and choreographer to the event as a gift. The crowd was excited and multigenerational, but what impressed me was the number of African Americans who turned out for this celebration. It reminded me again of how far we have come as a community, how during Alvin Ailey’s time we would not have been given the opportunity to be packed into such a beautiful theatre. How his performances may have been taken out of context as being a black radical approach to the racism of his time. How he would have been stigmatized for using dance as a means of communicating with his fellow blacks and the white community.

Alvin Ailey will always be the king of modern dance, which is both fitting and baffling due to the struggles of his upbringing. Modern dance I believe has its roots in the African spiritual movement; expressing ones soul and belief in a physical manner that leads to an emotional connection with the audience. This is both a leap of faith and fear of judgment, yet it is the dance that reflects the black struggle and revolution. Isn’t this what religion is to the black community? The song that most reflected my belief was titled I Wanna be Ready, Arranged by James Miller, and adapted into Ailey’s famous Revelations masterpiece in which a male dances to the reflection and proposal of death, letting go of ones sins, and gambles.

Alvin Ailey was a man that saw the world fold before him, but did not filter within its cracks. He was an adamant choreographer more then a dancer, often expecting perfection and then criticizing that perfection. His dances were filled with his religious beliefs, but also with the art of human form. Extensions overarched, and shapes constantly revolving, it’s as though he saw the human body as a sculpture to be mended with and reexamined, and often even broken down into new forms. He looked out into the stage of dance and envisioned a world beyond Texas, his hometown, and New York, which later became his base. He realized that dance had to be accepted on a universal arena, and to do so he emerged with an idea to show the world the power of dance by offering a touring dance company.

His most noted work, Revelations (1960); I believe is Ailey’s dance autobiography. It reflects the struggles of his youth in Texas as well as the technique he received at the Horton Dance Company. This piece strokes broadly into Ailey’s life; from the great depression, to segregation, to finding ones footing in the world. It also reflects the sadness that follows the death of an inspirer and mentor.

Many have tried to hide the fact that Alvin Ailey died of Aids at the age of fifty-eight (1989), in fact he is one of those many that tried to hide this truth. He asked his doctor to announce that he died of terminal blood dyscrasia to spare his mother the humiliation that came with the disease. As Alvin Ailey’s dance company celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, I think it is time that we begin a bigger dialogue regarding the Aids epidemic in the black community.

We have lost a lot of our entertainers and family members through silence. I believe if we are truly to honor the work that Ailey aspired to and provided, one would have to look at the education he provided to his own community. The times have changed since Alvin Ailey first came to terms with his disease; the humiliation of having HIV/Aids in America is coming to an end as we encourage each other to be tested and enforce HIV/Aids education. It saddened me to realize that his own company continued to live behind the curtains regarding his death rather then vocalizing the need for a dialogue. I hope that as we continue to celebrate Ailey’s work we also look at his short life as one that could have been spared and embraced much longer had we taken the time to discuss sex education within our community.

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