Alvin Ailey

Founder

Alvin Ailey was born on January 5, 1931, in Rogers, Texas. His experiences of life in the rural South would later inspire some of his most memorable works. Mr. Ailey was introduced to dance in Los Angeles by performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, and his formal dance training began with an introduction to Lester Horton’s classes by his friend Carmen de Lavallade. Horton, the founder of one of the first racially-integrated dance companies in the United States, became a mentor for Mr. Ailey as he embarked on his professional career. After Horton’s death in 1953, Mr. Ailey became director of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and began to choreograph his own works. In the 1950s and 60s, Mr. Ailey performed in four Broadway shows, including House of Flowers and Jamaica

In 1958, he led a group of young black modern dancers in a performance in New York City that changed forever the perception of American dance.  Since then, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience – has gone on to perform for an estimated 25 million people in 71 countries on six continents. 

When Mr. Ailey began creating dances, he drew upon his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration, which resulted in the creation of his popular and critically acclaimed must-see masterpiece Revelations. A few of his other notable works include 1958’s Blues Suite, his first masterpiece; Cry, the acclaimed tour-de-force female solo created for his mother in 1971; and several works set to music by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Hugh Masekela.   

Although he created 79 ballets over his lifetime, Alvin Ailey maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work.  Today, the Company continues Mr. Ailey's mission by presenting important works of the past and commissioning new ones.  In all, more than 200 works by over 80 choreographers are part of the Ailey company’s repertoire.

His ballets have appeared in the repertories of major dance companies around the world, including American Ballet Theatre; The Joffrey Ballet; Dance Theatre of Harlem; Paris Opera Ballet; and La Scala Ballet, and he choreographed operas for the openings of such esteemed institutions as The Metropolitan Opera House (Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1966 with Leontyne Price) and The Kennedy Center (Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in 1971). 

He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now The Ailey School) in 1969 and formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II) in 1974. Mr. Ailey was a pioneer of programs advancing arts in education, and the final program he launched before his passing in 1989 was AileyCamp – a full-scholarship summer day camp for young people ages 11 – 14 in underserved communities, now in 10 cities nationwide. 

Throughout his lifetime, Alvin Ailey received numerous honors and awards, including several honorary doctoral degrees, a 1976 NAACP Spingarn Award, and a 1982 United Nations Peace Medal. From the dance world, he received the 1975 Dance Magazine Award, the 1979 Capezio Award and modern dance’s most prestigious prize—the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award—in 1987. In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to American culture and achievement in the performing arts. He was posthumously awarded by President Obama the 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom – the country’s highest civilian honor – in recognition of his contributions and commitment to civil rights and dance in America, as well as the 2017 Logo Trailblazer Honor, celebrating him as a leader at the forefront of LGBTQ equality. He was also the subject of Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, Jennifer Dunning’s moving 1998 biography and the critically-praised documentary Ailey, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. 

When Mr. Ailey died on December 1, 1989, The New York Times said of him, “you didn’t need to have known [him] personally to have been touched by his humanity, enthusiasm, and exuberance and his courageous stand for multi-racial brotherhood.”

Featured News Releases

Ailey Documentary Opens In Movie Theaters Nationwide On Friday, August 6 After “Must-See” Acclaim From Sundance And Tribeca Film Festival Showings

New York – August 3, 2021 – Director Jamila Wignot’s powerful AILEY documentary, a resonant biography of trailblazing visionary Alvin Ailey, opens in movie theaters nationwide on Friday, August 6. Heralded as a must-see at the Sundance Film Festival and a Tribeca Film Festival critics pick, the film is told through Ailey’s own words, along with interviews with those close to him, and features evocative archival footage and rarely seen historic performances. The official trailer here previews the film acclaimed as “extraordinarily moving” and “a movie that pulses with joyful expressiveness” that “hauntingly evokes Alvin Ailey’s majesty.”

Ailey All Access Premieres Jamar Roberts' Members Don't Get Weary On April 28 Set To The Legendary John Coltrane's Music During Jazz Appreciation Month

New York, NY – April 23, 2021 – The Ailey organization continues to honor its founder who taught the important lesson of “holding a mirror to society so that people can see how beautiful they are,” by offering Ailey All Access, a free online initiative that illuminates the human spirit and sparks change. Since March 30, the streaming series has reached millions across the globe with free performance broadcasts of full length works from the repertory, Ailey Extension dance and fitness classes, and more.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Presents Ailey Forward - First-Ever Virtual Season Celebrating Six Decades Of Revelations December 2 - 31, 2020

New York – November 10, 2020 – This holiday season, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will continue a tradition of uplifting and uniting audiences across the globe with a free virtual engagement celebrating six decades of Revelations, thanks to the generous support of Bank of America. Nine special presentations extending from December 2 – 31 will each be available online for a one-week period and open to all. Ailey’s extraordinary dancers will elevate a legacy of innovation and excellence in artistry with a reimagined season featuring premieres by Ailey’s Resident Choreographer Jamar Roberts; and Associate Artistic Director Matthew Rushing, in partnership with Company member and Assistant to the Rehearsal Director Clifton Brown, and former Company member Yusha-Marie Sorzano; a variety of other distinct programs; and a series of BattleTalk conversations, moderated by Artistic Director Robert Battle.

Featured Press Coverage

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New York Post - Giant Leaps: New Alvin Ailey Doc Celebrates Dance Legend’s Greatness

At the beginning of “Ailey” – the documentary about iconic choreographer Alvin Ailey, which opens in New York today – greatness recognizes greatness when Cicely Tyson calls him the “Pied Piper of modern dance” at his 1988 Kennedy Center Honors induction. And for this master of movement – who founded the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company in New York in 1958 – it was all about brining black people to the traditionally white world of dance.

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The New York Times - The Man Behind The Dances

Too often, the idea of Alvin Ailey is reduced to a single dance: “Revelations.” His 1960 exploration of the Black experience remains a masterpiece, but it also overshadows the person who made it. How can an artist grow after such early success? Who was Alvin Ailey the man? In “Ailey,” the director Jamila Wignot layers images, video and – most important – voiceovers from Alvin Ailey to create a portrait that feels as poetic and nuanced as choreography itself.