Tuesday, October 17, 2017
The Essence of Alvin Ailey
Published March 26, 2009



Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Photo by Malcom Ali for Sentinel


World Famous Theatre Celebrates 50th Anniversary


I was given the opportunity to accompany photographer Malcome Ali on the premiere opening night of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) on Wednesday March 18, 2009 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  What I experienced, I will never forget.

The evening began with us waiting in front of the red carpet with other reporters and photographers for celebrities to arrive. Among the celebs were Niece Nash (Clean House) and Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee), but my heart raced when I saw the tall and elegant Judith Jamison, Artistic Director of AAADT. Here is a woman of beauty and class, a woman who is literally walking history.

The company, who is celebrating its 50th year anniversary, was founded in 1958 by Mr. Ailey who led several young black modern dancers in a performance in New York City that forever changed the perception of black dance in America.

Born in Rogers, Texas on January 5, 1931, Alvin Ailey moved to Los Angeles with his mother at the age of 12 where he was first introduced to dance by performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. His formal dance training began when his friend Carmen de Lavallade encouraged him to join her in classes taught by Los Angeles-based modern dance pioneer Lester Horton.

When Mr. Ailey began choreographing, he drew upon his “blood memories” of Texas – the blues, the spirituals and wonderful gospel music for inspiration. The result was the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Revelations. Since its premiere is 1960, Revelations has been seen by more people around the world than any other dance piece.

In 1965, Mr. Ailey discovered an extraordinarily talented young dancer, Judith Jamison, who danced with the company for 15 years to great acclaim.  Their 44-year partnership, one of the most celebrated pairings in modern dance, began when Jamison auditioned for another prominent black choreographer, Donald McKayle, though she did not make the audition Mr. Ailey who was present at the audition saw something in her that he wanted for his company, and he was very right. Her brilliant dancing and style gave inspiration to many of Mr. Ailey‘s works, including his best-known solo Cry.

Before his untimely death in 1989, Mr. Ailey chose Judith Jamison to become Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.     During his lifetime he created 79 ballets and has inspired many other African Americans in dance. One of which is Los Angeles’ very own Lula Washington of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Ms. Washington first saw the Ailey Company perform in the late 60’ and from then on was inspired to train in formal dance.

The Lula Washington Dance Theatre is a 10-member modern dance company that was founded in 1980, and what most people do not know is that Mr. Ailey and Ms. Washington also shared a close friendship. Mr. Ailey in fact wanted Lula’s company to be as strong on the west cost as his company is on the east cost. Lula Washington is the main choreographer and the artistic “voice” of the company, but both companies share repertoire of famous choreographers such as Talley Beaty, Donald McKayle and  Donald Byrd to name a few.

The evening’s performance began with a short film entitled Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at 50: A Golden Anniversary Celebration. The film depicted clips of Mr. Ailey himself as well as Judith Jamison, Robert Battle, and Carmen de Lavallade speaking on his life. After the presentation there was a short pause, the show was about to start. I, like many of the 3,200 people in attendance, sat anxiously in my seat ready, waiting for the curtain to go up.

The first piece performed was entitled “Go in Grace” choreographed by the company’s own Hope Boykin. It was the story of a family within a community that illustrated the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” The dancers were Amos J. Machanic Jr., who portrayed the father, Renee Robinson, (the mother), Rosalyn Deshauteurs (daughter), Matthew Rushing (brother) and Kirven J. Boyd and Antonio Douthit who portrayed the neighborhood boys that were up to no good. Accompanying the dancers were Grammy-Award winning female vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. Ms. Boykin casts the soulful singers as members of a community who unite to move a young girl (Rosalyn Derhauteurs) forward in grace, style, and wisdom. I really enjoyed the message in this piece.

The second piece of the evening was entitled “Suite Otis,” which was a tribute to the late Otis Redding. This was a very fun and energetic piece. Choreographed by George Faison, former AAADT company member and Tony Award-winner, he depicts a playful battle of the sexes to soulful songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Satisfaction” and other favorites. The dancers mixed romance and humor to deliver an overall enjoyable performance. I was smiling the whole time.

The third and last performance of the evening that sealed the whole of the Ailey experience was the forever inspiring “Revelations.” As soon as the music started and the curtain went up the audience cheered, for this piece is an all time favorite, not only for dancers like myself but for people in general. I feel that it takes the human spirit to that place of hope and beauty, because as in Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural speech “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” As the AAADT performs this timeless and beloved  piece “Revelations” they let their own light shine and give others the permission to do the same weather in dance or not. When you see this piece you will walk away with something because you know that each and every dancer that steps foot on that stage put in the years of work, and the hours of blood, sweat and tears to bring you an amazing and unforgettable performance.

So who are we not to walk away from this experience without learning something and applying it to our own lives? Again refering back to the Nelson Mandela speech “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing it small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of god that is within us. It’s not just in some of us it’s in all of us.” 

So I say this to you as a student, dancer, and performer my experience in seeing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was truly an amazing and inspiring experience I will never forget.

Categories: Theater

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