The 1980s became the first decade of American dance’s
second generation. Before it was out New
York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Joffrey Ballet had all gotten
new artistic directors, and then, right at the end of the decade, the death of
Alvin Ailey placed the nation’s largest and most diversified modern dance
troupe under the same jeopardy.
With the welcome and exceptionally prompt announcement by the board of directors that Judith Jamison would become the new artistic director, the company’s
continuance is now certain. Moreover, its place in the dance world, as a total organization-school and companies-appears as secure as anything can be in the currently imperiled and topsy-turvy landscape of the American performing arts scene.
There will be time to think of the future later; now we should pause on the past and wonder about the achievement. And it is indeed something to wonder about-how a poor black kid from Texas swiftly emerged as an enormous power in international dance, the architect of a major American institution.
Although I did not see those first 92nd Street Y concerts where the fledgling
Ailey troupe tried out its wings, nor the premieres of Blues Suite and Revelations,
I was lucky enough to watch the company through all of its later history, from
1964 on, and it was certainly something to watch.
Ailey’s basic training was different, to quite a significant extent, from the usual run of American modern dance. Just as literally all classic ballet dancers can be traced back, in surprisingly few pedagogic generational leaps, to Vestris, so can nearly all American modern dancers be traced back to the Denishawn school-normally through either Martha Graham or Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.
Ailey stood apart-or rather danced apart.
His early training came from the maverick California school of Lester Horton-an American original. Horton devised his own dance form, partly from a study of American Indian ritual, and used it as the basis for America’s first multiracial dance company, called, simply, Dance Theater. Ailey adopted Horton’s principles-it is not by chance that his company was also multiracial and was called the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater-as well as his technique.
The impact of Horton on Ailey was considerable. Ironically, only this past season did his dancers give the first company performance of Horton’s Sarong Paramaribo. But an even earlier influence (although Ailey never studied with her) was the example of Katherine Dunham.
From both Horton and Dunham, as well as from his early experience on Broadway, where he first worked with Herbert Ross, Ailey received a concept of dance that was above all dramatic and theatrical. And also show business. Although, curiously, Ailey never found time to choreograph a Broadway show (despite continual offers t0, the Broadway influence was omnipresent.
Yet the muscular awareness of Horton (whose other main pupils included Joyce Trisler, Carmen de Lavallade, James Truitte, and Bella Lewitzky), that tautly held torso with its asymmetrically splayed limbs, continued to exert a choreographic
influence on Ailey to the end. Even so, constructionally much of his work was based on the diagonal processionals beloved of Gerald Arpino, beside whom Ailey had worked at the Joffrey/Harkness workshops in Watch Hill during the mid-sixties.
He was not a great choreographer, but he produced on great work (Revelations), perhaps another (Blues Suite); and he had a genius for understanding the spirit and structure of jazz, in which he was following the path set by certain other black choreographers, notably Talley Beatty and Louis Johnson. Also, like Horton, Arpino, and Beatty, he was gifted with a natural theatricality. He
also had a responsiveness to style that helped him develop a form of third-stream dance idiom, between classic ballet and modern dance.
Ailey’s ambitions always extended further than choreography; they probably extended further than dance itself. Deeply conscious and profoundly proud of his ethnic roots, he gracefully accepted his position as a black artist, a black role model, and a black leader. Internationally-in such centers as London, Paris, and Copenhagen-he was the best-known black choreographer, and his work with the great classic companies of the world brought him enormous prestige as well as great pleasure.
Many modern dance choreographers-such as Paul Taylor, Merce Cunnigham, and Jose Limon-have permitted their works to be performed by ballet companies, but Ailey, Anna Sokolow, and, much later, Twyla Tharp, were the first to create
entirely new ballets for classical dancers. All this added to Ailey’s international acclaim, which was further enhanced by the long overseas tours of his company (spending almost as much time outside this country as in it) and his willingness to serve on international juries and dance panels.
But probably Ailey’s permanent memorial will be his school and his company. Interestingly, he always regarded his school as having enormous social as well as artistic importance, while his company was organized on unique lines for a modern dance company. Traditionally, from Isadora Duncan onward, a modern dance company existed only to frame the dancing, and by extension the choreography, of one particular dancer. Ailey saw a company as a repertoire showcase for many choreographers, not simply himself, although he always remained the principal choreographer.
But the company itself was organized on lines very similar to those of Joffrey Ballet, and, as an artistic director, Ailey had quite a lot in common with Robert
Joffrey, seeing his company very much as an expression of his own taste. Ailey saw it as a historic duty to preserve works by the likes of Beatty, Donald McKayle, and, very particularly, Dunham, which might otherwise have passed into the limbo of history books.
Jamison, herself a choreographer of proven and notable promise, always one of Ailey’s favorite protégées and a woman who symbolized much of his choreography (rather as Suzanne Farrell came to symbolize the late Balanchine), is leading a strong
company into the nineties. As with most modern dance troupes, it has advanced enormously in sheer technique over the past, say, two decades, and it is now a more brilliant, more vibrant dance instrument than ever before. There have been losses, of course-perhaps some of the personalities are not quite so strong, or the dancers’ dramatic involvement not quite so evident. But this is the current way of dance and a trend far from unique to Ailey.
What the company must do is to cleave to Ailey’s sense of adventure, sense of various traditions, and sense of theater. The company has a style and a repertoire to preserve and develop, and it is backed by a strong school and a sound community superstructure.
Ailey’s death was tragically premature, but his achievement, like his life, could never be called halfhearted or half-finished. He is leaving a rich dance legacy for his heirs-and all interested in American dance can luckily count themselves among that number.
Copyright©1990, Dance Magazine.