Solid Gold: Ailey turns 50

November 19, 2008

Sitting in an airport lounge while on tour, and listening to a song on her laptop computer, Hope Boykin started to cry. What she had on her laptop was a download of Sweet Honey In The Rock, the richly harmonizing, a cappella women singers with whom the dancer was creating a premiere for the Ailey company’s 50th-anniversary season. During the planning stages, Boykin had told Sweet Honey about the three generations of her family sharing a house and keeping watch over one another—and about her mom. A short while later, the musicians gave her a song called “Go in Grace” from which the new dance would draw its name. “I’m listening to this song at the airport, and then all of a sudden there’s this line which says, ‘Remember what your mother said: Don’t forget to pray,’ ” Boykin explains, still stunned. “It was one of those moments that made you remember.”


The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater seems adept at prompting moments of recall like this one. Matthew Rushing, among the Ailey company’s best-loved stars, recalls his first impressions of the dance troupe as a teenager in Los Angeles. “When I saw the ballet Cry, choreographed by Mr. Ailey, I saw images of my mother, my grandmother and aunt,” Rushing says. “When I saw Revelations, I saw images from my own childhood growing up in church: seeing baptisms and men and women dressed in their best, hearing those songs. I always feel that Alvin Ailey is a part of my identity. It’s who I am.”


To audiences, too, the company offers powerful flashes of self-recognition. Whether or not these epiphanies relate to childhood church memories, the Ailey company’s soulfulness and fierce virtuosity have won enthusiastic audiences wherever they go—and they tour 25 weeks a year. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Ailey is thriving. Its financial picture is strong, its visibility is mushrooming via primetime television, and the troupe has an exciting season planned for New York City Center with Oprah Winfrey as an honored guest at its gala.


Earlier this year artistic director Judith Jamison announced the anniversary season from the stage of the Ailey Citigroup Theater, a sleek, state-of-the-art facility sitting beneath the six-story brick-and-glass tower that the Ailey company owns in midtown Manhattan. Named The Joan Weill Center for Dance after the philanthropist who chairs the company’s board of directors, it is the largest building dedicated to dance in the United States. It opened in 2004 as a home for the company and its school, and as a base for its ever-expanding outreach programs. These programs include a national network of AileyCamps for disadvantaged youth; Ailey Extension classes for the public; and a BFA program in dance at Fordham University. All this nearly two decades after its founding father went to join the ancestors.


Instead of 13 dancers running on a budget of Alvin Ailey’s personal savings (as the company did for its first performance at the 92nd Street Y in 1958), the troupe now employs 30 dancers and a small army of 70 administrators. It is led respectively by Jamison, a company star turned dramatic offstage personality in flowing robes; and executive director Sharon Gersten Luckman, a small, pert woman whose thick braid recalls the pioneer generation of American moderns. Working side-by-side they report separately to the board of directors, helping to ensure that neither of them tells the other how to do her job. Yet they are also leaders of what Jamison calls a family, “as complicated as a family is complicated,” where, to name a few, Masazumi Chaya is associate artistic director; Ronni Favors runs rehearsals; Sylvia Waters heads the junior company, Ailey II; and Denise Jefferson directs the school. Says Jamison, “We can work as a group, and that’s what’s key.”


The Ailey company’s annual budget is now $27 million. Much of the financial growth has occurred since the early 1990s, when then executive director Michael Kaiser put the company on a new financial path, weaning it away from a dependence on government funding and putting lean muscle on its board of directors. When Kaiser hired Luckman as development director in 1992, she recalls, the office could not afford the postage to mail donation pleas.


Events tied to the anniversary have included or will include outreach to churches; a film retrospective at Lincoln Center; an exhibition at the Library of Congress and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; an Ailey-specific installation of the fascinating Slow Dancing video project by David Michalek; the publication of a book of Ailey photographs by Andrew Eccles (see “Dance Magazine Recommends,” page TK); a commemorative Movado watch; a series of Hallmark greeting cards; and a Barbie doll with chocolate skin tones and a white flounced dress so Barbie can dance the ecstatic “Wade in the Water” section of Revelations.


This year, Ailey dancers made guest appearances on television’s So You Think You Can Dance where they reached an audience of 8 million viewers, and Dancing With the Stars, where they reached 17 million. By comparison, 21 million people have seen the company live during 50 years hauling across America by bus and truck, not to mention the international tours.


On a smaller scale, Ailey has engaged in an outreach project to 50 churches, mostly in New York. One of them is the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where children in the congregation performed excerpts of Revelations while the choir sang the accompanying spirituals. Reverend Eboni K. Marshall, a former Ailey/Fordham student, gave a sermon about the company’s work. “Most people see a big gap between religion and the arts,” says Reverend Marshall. “But for me they are intricately linked because both seek to touch and transform people’s lives. In dance you are preaching with your legs and your arms and your torso.” Talking about pieces like Revelations, she says, “The Ailey company forces people to look inside themselves, to deal with what’s going on with their spirits, with their emotions, with their physicality.”


Ailey only made one Revelations, but that dance’s empathy for beaten-down humanity striving to stand tall, and its transcendent images of surrender to a higher power have colored everything his company presents. With its overwhelming success, Revelations became the context for a repertory that ranges widely from Billy Wilson to Alonzo King and Rennie Harris. When newer dances came along like Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter, and Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, they reaffirmed the social awareness and faith in which Revelations was rooted. Even a relatively bleak and violent piece like Ulysses Dove’s Urban Folk Dance appears softened by the light of Christian charity shining next door.


The 50th-anniversary season at City Center includes Boykin’s collaboration with Sweet Honey In The Rock, with the famous singers and American Sign Language woven in to the choreography of the piece; Festa Barocca, a new work by Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, who has danced Ailey works in Europe; an “Anniversary Highlights” program featuring excerpts from Ailey’s choreography and such rarities as his Mary Lou’s Mass, Caverna Magica and Opus McShann. Two separate “Ailey and Ellington” programs will feature live music played by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. On gala night, December 3, dancers dressed in golden fashions designed by Badgley Mischka will mingle with company supporters who seem likely to be dazzled.


When asked about her hopes for the company’s future, Jamison, who plans to step down from her post in 2011, says, “What will sustain the Ailey company is retaining its connection to the human condition. What I’m talking about is something that is from the heart. Mr. Ailey understood the human condition, and he created ballets reflecting that,” she continues. “He also gave us the opportunity to shine as individuals and to explore how many ways there are of moving in this world.”


As busy as the anniversary season has been, Jamison says, “This is a stepping-off point. Whenever we think we have achieved something, there’s always something more to add. There’s always someone who longs for the magic of an Ailey performance.”



Robert Johnson is staff dance critic for
The Star-Ledger, in Newark, NJ.