“ We talk too much of black art when we should be talking about art, just art. Black composers must be free to write rondos and fugues, not only protest songs. I use Ellington and I want to use more of his music, but it’s music.”
With these words in an interview in 1971, Alvin Ailey, the African- American dancer and choreographer, talked about the universality of art regardless of race, ethnicity and convictions. He embraced this idea during his life, having himself grown up in times of racial segregation.
Ailey was born in 1931 in a small area in Texas, USA, and grew up in conditions of hardship and poverty, as every African- American did at that time. Inequalities existed in every aspect of American life: black students were not allowed to go to the same school with white people and getting a seat on a bus was a frustrating thing to do as seats were segregated.
He was first inspired by both the adversities he encountered in his everyday life and the church, where he used to attend mass as a child, and which laid the foundations for his career.
Life in New York
At the age of 12, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother in pursuit of a ‘better life’. For Ailey, that relocation was to lead him down the paths of modern dance. During his stay, he met dancer and choreographer Lester Horton who, apart from having particularly modern teaching methods, had also a multicultural attitude, indeed a rare characteristic in those days.
That was one open door for the young dance student to go through, and which would eventually lead him to success. His hard work, devotion and love for what he did brought him to New York about fifteen years later, where founded his own dance company along with a small group of black dancers, the Alvin Ailey American dance theatre, in 1958.
New York was a place where a lot of art experimentation took place during those years. Furthermore, in the city, many protest movements took place, including a civil rights movement for black citizens and a feminist movement.
The founding of Ailey’s theatre and his personal evolution happened simultaneously with all these changes which were leading to a new awareness of black participation in American society.
In 1960 he made one of his first choreographies, Revelations, a work that described his faith in God and focused on surviving slavery.
Life of the South
The dancers performed the life of the South by dancing on the songs of gospel music, which reminded a life of beauty, pain, misery and hope, as he said.
Taking into consideration that the show was performed in the midst of the civil rights movement, it was a challenging art piece. It depicted the life of that time vividly, whilst celebrating life itself.
“Alvin Ailey wanted to celebrate what he couldn’t see celebrated, the enormous talent that had not been seen. He wanted to celebrate our experience as a universal experience. He did so much, that he left us so much. This is a vast organization started by Mr Alvin Aileys vision. It’s our responsibility to continue this legacy” said Mrs Judith Jamison, who took over the company after his death in 1989, to New York Times.
Ailey provided the American dance stage with a new perception of what dance is. His humanistic vision that dance is for everyone, added to the cultural heritage of the world. He choreographed more than 50 dance pieces, most of them, if not all, inspired by his personal life.
Today the school is widely known and respected and it has gone on to perform for about 25 million people worldwide.