For Ailey Troupe, at 50, a Street and
an 18-Month Tribute
By JENNIFER DUNNING
Photographs by Robert Caplin for The New York Times
Renee Robinson, center, rehearsing for the Alvin Ailey troupe’s anniversary event on Thursday
There has long been an Alvin Ailey Street in Rogers, the small town in southeast Texas where Ailey was born in 1931. And now, worlds away in bustling Manhattan, West 55th Street from 9th to 10th Avenues will be named Alvin Ailey Place.
That is just one of many elements — including performances, a video installation and even the release of a Barbie doll — of a 50th anniversary national celebration commemorating the first appearance of the company that came to be known as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The full details of the 18-month-long observance will be announced on Thursday at the troupe’s center on West 55th Street. The event will include the reading of a Congressional resolution naming the company a “vital American Cultural Ambassador to the World” in recognition of tours in 71 countries.
The celebration begins on Sunday, when religious institutions around the nation, including the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Rogers, where Ailey was baptized, will feature the singing of select spirituals from Ailey’s signature “Revelations.” Local dance ministries will perform choreography inspired by the Ailey repertory.
It was on March 30, 1958, that a group of black performers calling themselves Alvin Ailey and Dancers took the stage together for the first time, in a performance at the 92nd Street Y. The response to Ailey’s “Blues Suite,” an instant classic, was frenetic. The 13 dancers, all friends from Broadway shows and the scrabbling modern-dance scene, were unpaid and exhausted. But looking back, many said, they had a sense that something important had happened.
“Everything had connected so beautifully, like a well-fit glove,” Claude Thompson, one of the dancers, recalled many years later. “I knew then that I was an artist.”
The tributes will include a video installation at the Ailey center by David Michalek, who created the “Slow Dancing” installation at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2007. An exhibition of letters, photographs, choreographic notes and more will open on May 8 at the Library of Congress, where the Ailey archives are housed. It will travel in October to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the city where Ailey, who died in 1989, discovered dance as a child.
There will be a spring season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (June 3 to 8), presented by the Joyce Theater. And the company will give free performances and dance classes throughout New York City in August. The troupe’s winter season at City Center (Dec. 3 to Jan. 4) will include performances of Ailey’s collaborations with Duke Ellington, set to live music by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock will perform in a premiere by Hope Boykin, a company member.
The company will not need to announce a $50 million anniversary endowment drive. That goal has already been reached. “One reason for the endowment is to make sure we can continue touring,” said Sharon Luckman, executive director of the Ailey company since 1995. “The economics of touring have gotten so hard. Another reason is to be able to continue with scholarships and living stipends.”
Much of the anniversary money was raised by the Ailey board. Joan Weill, the board’s chairwoman, said the company had not only drawn her in with its art and social programs, but it also had an unlikely recruit in her husband, Sanford I. Weill, former chairman of Citigroup.
“Oh, my God,” Ms. Weill recalled her husband saying when she told him she had joined the Ailey board and would be taking him to performances. But now he loves the company, she said, and the dancers have even invited him to learn some floor stretches.
There will also be an anniversary Ailey Barbie doll, designed by Judith Jamison, who will step down as the artistic director of the Ailey company in 2011. “There wasn’t a doll that looked like me back then,” she said of her years as a young ballet student in Philadelphia.
“I chose her skin tone, my color, and her features,” Ms. Jamison said of the doll, which will be available in November and dressed in a “Revelations” costume. “I wanted her to look as black people look, a mixture of many, many things. She is a beautiful African queen.”
Why no Ailey Ken doll to advance the notion of male dancers? “Do you know any other dance company that has its own Barbie Doll?” Ms. Jamison exclaimed. “Give me a break.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company