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Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey was a choreographer who established the ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’ to promote modern dance forms. He was an African-American, who sought to preserve the uniqueness of his own culture and simultaneously enrich the American modern dance heritage. He was also an activist and, in his lifetime, he undertook a number of programmes to promote arts, particularly benefiting deprived communities. Born into a poor family, Ailey didn’t have an easy life. He was raised at that time of racial segregation when most people of his race were forced to take sundry and minor jobs. However, fate had something else in store for Ailey. When Ailey first enrolled himself in a dance school, he showed promise which only few could exhibit. His dance was driven by passion and enhanced by innovation. No wonder that he is credited for introducing various dance techniques which changed the course of modern dance. He even travelled to various places, not just to propagate his dance, but also to learn from the local cultures. His company even earned the nickname ‘Cultural Ambassador to the World’. In his lifetime, he achieved many honorary awards and recognitions for his contribution to the American Dance culture and his efforts at fostering humanity and inter-racial brotherhood.Alvin Ailey was born in times when racial segregation, violence and assassination of African-Americans were common scenario in America. Ailey was only six months old when his father abandoned his family. When he was five, his mother was raped by a group of white men which instilled a fear of whites in him; a fear that haunted him for a long time.In the fall of 1942, Ailey and his mother migrated to Los Angeles, California in search of a new job. Here, Ailey was first enrolled in a junior high school, which was located in a predominantly white district. Being black, he felt left out and hence, was then sent to a black school.He graduated from the Thomas Jefferson High School in 1948 where he actively sang spirituals in the glee club and wrote poetry.After graduation, Ailey considered becoming a teacher and attended the University of California in Los Angeles to study languages.However, Ailey started taking dancing seriously when his school friend, Carmen De Lavallade, introduced him to the Hollywood studio of Lester Horton in 1949. It was then that he began studying modern dance with Horton.In 1951, Ailey moved to San Francisco to continue his studies and also danced a nightclub for a brief period and was paired with Marguerite Johnson, a famous dancer. Upon his return to California, he went to Horton yet again to study dance. In 1953, Ailey joined the Horton's Company and gave his first dance performance in Horton's ‘Revue Le Bal Caribe’. He also got a chance to perform in several Hollywood films. When the sudden death of Horton in the same year left the company without an artistic director, Ailey, then twenty two, stepped forward to assume the role.Ailey’s first Broadway debut was in 1954 Truman Capote's short-lived musical ‘House of Flowers’.In 1957, he was in another Broadway musical, ‘Jamaica’, starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban.His biggest claim to fame was when he formed his own dance group in 1958 called, the ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’. The group gave its inaugural performance on March 30, 1958.Ailey encouraged multi-racialism and recruited people solely based on their talents.Around this time, Ailey not only created work for his own company, but also choreographed for other dance companies.In 1962, the U.S. State Department funded the Alvin Ailey Dance Company's first overseas tour. This helped him create an international reputation.In the mid-1960s, he stopped performing and focused only on choreography. His works included a number of brilliant dance performances such as ‘Masekela Language’ (1969), which depicted the experience of being black in South Africa.In the same year, he also formed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center.In 1970, Ailey was requested by a commission to create ‘The River’ for the American Ballet Theatre. The following year, with the success of ‘Cry’, one of Ailey’s masterpieces, he gained great fame.   Ailey was romantically associated with the political activist, David McReynolds, for some time during the 1950s.His untimely death occurred on December 1, 1989, when he succumbed to AIDS.Even years after his death, Ailey continues to be an important figure in the field of dance through the ballets he formed and the organizations he founded.


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Alvin Ailey

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