ALVIN AILEY, JR. Biography - Famous Poets and dancers


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"He made us believe that we were gods and goddesses, but also individuals," says     
Judith Jamison of Alvin Ailey, whom she celebrates in "Hymn" and whose company       
she now directs. He did this while being, always, horribly unsure of his own         
worth, and afflicted for much of his life with mental problems that would have       
derailed a less dedicated man.Born in poor, rural Rogers, Texas in 1931, Ailey       
was the child of Lula Elizabeth Cliff, and the handsome Alvin Ailey, whom she       
married at 16. She gave birth to Alvin Jr. two years later. He was, according to     
biographer Jennifer Dunning, "a big baby," reluctant to walk on his own until he     
was more than 18 months old. A few months later his father fled the marriage,       
returning some years on, but this time it was Lula who took off, moving herself     
and the child to Wharton, Texas, where the two of them picked cotton.               
More moves followed; the one stable point was the Baptist Church, where Ailey       
attended Sunday School and listened to the gospel services, and where he was         
baptized. When he was five, they moved to Navasota, a larger and more segregated     
Texas town, which nevertheless had a theater where he was exposed to blues           
singers and minstrel shows. He wrote and drew constantly, and stayed behind for     
nearly a year when Lula decided to move to Los Angeles.                             
They reunited there in 1942. In school, Ailey exhibited a gift for languages and     
began reading and writing poetry and singing. School field trips introduced him     
to such black stars as Lena Horne. He failed at tap-dancing, and discovered         
Central Avenue, which had theaters and movie palaces and cocktail lounges. Ailey     
watched top black vaudeville acts and films like "Cabin in the Sky" and "Stormy     
Weather." Remembered as a moody child, he made friends who shared his interest       
in the arts. But when his mother remarried, he was devastated.                       
At Jefferson High School he was taken to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, an     
adventure which set him in the habit of traveling downtown on weekends to pursue     
his interests in music and dance. He visited Katherine Dunham in her dressing       
room, soaking up the brilliant fabrics and energy of backstage life. At school       
he met Carmen de Lavallade, whose guardian owned a bookstore devoted to black       
writing and was related to the famous black ballerina Janet Collins.                 
Performances Collins gave lured Ailey to Lester Horton's studio, where he           
watched for six months before he worked up the courage to take classes.             
Dance is one of the last remaining arts in which knowledge is transmitted           
directly from generation to generation, artist to artist, often including the       
ultimate in phyical closeness -- actual physical contact. Lester Horton was a       
unique outpost of contemporary dance sensibility in Los Angeles, and one of the     
few teachers who welcomed nonwhite students. (Another was the ballet teacher         
Carmelita Maracci.) He created what became a real family for Ailey, allowing him     
to explore all his talents. But all too soon, on November 2, 1953, Horton was       
Alvin Ailey, at 23 barely out of his own apprenticeship with Horton's company,       
became its artistic director, choreographing a ballet based on Tennessee             
Williams's works and works of other artists, many of them savaged by the critics.   
After an appearance at Jacob's Pillow, a dance retreat in the Berkshires, Ailey     
auditioned for and won a role in a Broadway show, "House of Flowers," based on a     
Truman Capote story. From 1955 on, he made his home in New York, studying with       
every choreographer on the burgeoning scene: Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris       
Humphrey, Katherine Dunham, Charles Weidman, Karel Shook. After his show closed     
he lived on unemployment and the proceeds from teaching, soaking up the city's       
resources: films, poetry readings, new music, and dance and drama. The civil         
rights movement began to escalate, and Ailey found himself in a position to         
express its drama in theater and choreography. He danced in television shows and     
films, moving away from the experimental modern dance world and into the more       
glamorous precincts of Broadway. He worked as a lead dancer in the 1957 musical     
"Jamaica," choreographed by Jack Cole, and at the same time began preparing         
choreography of his own, with which he made his New York debut in 1958 at the 92nd   
Street Y.                                                                           
According to Dunning, dance was for Ailey "a way to communicate with whoever         
turned up to see his work, whether he was speaking about the power of the blues     
in black lives, the beauty of those lives, or, indirectly, about how it might       
feel to be an ugly duckling, an uncertain authority, or even, perhaps, a man         
considered not quite a man by virtue of his race and sexuality. Ailey understood     
more than most how universal specifics tend to be. . . . He wanted to show           
people, both black and white, how beautiful -- and how open -- [black dancers]       
could be." On that first 92nd Street Y program he premiered "Blues Suite," a         
dance set in a "sporting house," calling upon his memories of the roadhouses of     
Texas to create a work celebrating black culture. As one dancer said, "He had       
the knack of making you tear your guts out onstage. You really wanted to give it     
all you had."                                                                       
Alvin Ailey's biography reads like the description of a great tree. He soaked up     
knowledge and inspiration from the culture that produced him, and produced           
leaves in the form of dances, branches that are the hundreds of dancers and         
choreographers who studied with him, performed with and for him, passed through     
his company and, ultimately, his school. He found a home for the company at a       
YWCA in Manhattan, paving the way for what became the Clark Center for the           
Performing Arts, a mecca for dancers.                                               
From Ailey's legendary "Revelations."                                               
On January 31, 1960, the Ailey dancers performed "Revelations" for the first         
time, at the Kaufmann Concert Hall of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA. Drawn from Negro     
spirituals, it was as sacred as "Blues Suite" was secular, and it knocked the       
audience out with its combination of jazzy steps and humorous portraits. Thirty-nine 
years and hundreds of performances later, it is still doing that, and regularly     
closes the bulk of shows in New York and on tour. A suite of dances, it shows us     
black men on the run from sins real and imagined, and black women in all their       
summer glory, celebrating their faith in a small, airless, Southern Baptist         
church, recreating, as Dunning observes, "the gestures and ceremony he               
remembered from his own baptism, exaltation rising up from the stirred waters of     
the snake-ridden pond back of the church in Rogers, Texas." Dunning's colleague     
at the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff, has said the work "addresses itself to a     
universal expression of faith -- in religion perhaps, in faith in art itself."       
The problem with creating a masterpiece right out of the gate is that you spend     
the rest of your life trying to top it. Ailey made dances to folk, modern, and       
classical music, to blues, and -- most famously -- to jazz, especially the work     
of Duke Ellington; he also choreographed to songs by Laura Nyro, Keith Jarret,       
and dozens more over 30 years.                                                       
The life of the Ailey company coincides closely with the fabled "dance boom,"       
which was set off in the mid-'60s with the establishment of the National             
Endowment for the Arts. Ailey was able to take his company on tour frequently, a     
mixed blessing; it made any kind of normal relationship or family life next to       
impossible. He was notoriously reclusive, and as the years passed became             
increasingly distracted, perhaps an indication of the psychological difficulties     
he was having. Although the company was a smash hit abroad, it was broke at home,   
putting continuous pressure on everyone involved. Wonderful new dancers like         
Judith Jamison and Dudley Williams joined the company; as Alvin approached 35,       
he danced less and less, with Williams taking over his roles. The company was in     
residence for a period at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but, after a smash         
Broadway season, it returned to Clark Center and began searching for a Manhattan     
base, settling for years in a studio on East 59th Street. In 1979, it found         
space in a spanking new high-rise overlooking Times Square, where it remained       
until moving, a decade later, into its current home on West 61st Street, behind     
Lincoln Center.                                                                     
It was several years before he made another major work, but in 1984 he returned     
to his love of indigenous black music and choreographed "For Bird -- With Love,"     
a tribute to jazzman Charlie Parker. The research for this work led him to form     
strong associations in Kansas City, Parker's birthplace, which culminated in the     
founding of the first AileyCamp and in Kansas City's becoming almost a "second       
home" for the company.                                                               
The troupe continued to tour and to grow; large grants became available. But the     
specter of AIDS loomed, claiming both administrators and dancers. Ailey won         
every award that the dance field and the country offers its artists, but his         
health began to decline. A huge project celebrating Katherine Dunham took its       
toll on everyone. Another jazz-biographical dance, "Opus McShann," mystified         
some viewers. Invited to the White House, Ailey struggled through the visit         
despite encroaching illness. Diagnosed with cytomegalovirus and suffering from       
an esophogeal ulcer, he spent months in the hospital, passing away on December 1,   
1989. Maya Angelou, at his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine,         
compared his death to the fall of a great tree.