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. At age 12, he moved with his mother to Los Angeles, where he was introduced to dance by performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. 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. Mr. Ailey studied dance with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, and Karel Shook and also took acting classes with Stella Adler.
 
In 1958, he founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to carry out his vision of a company dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African-American cultural experience. 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 promoting arts in education, particularly those benefiting underserved communities. Throughout his lifetime, he was awarded numerous honorary doctoral degrees, NAACP’s Spingarn Award, the United Nations Peace Medal, the Dance Magazine Award, the Capezio Award, and the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award. In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Honor in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to American culture. 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.”
 

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PBS News Hour - Alvin Ailey's Beautiful Vision For Dance, Captured In Thousands Of Photos

It’s a simple photograph: a young man staring directly into the camera, arms folded. In the image captured in 1962, dance maestro Alvin Ailey looks defiant. Rhea Combs also sees something else when she looks at the black-and-white image. To her, the fact that photographer Jack Mitchell captured the performer shirtless is a visual metaphor, as if Ailey is telling the viewer, “I’m just baring my chest to the world and giving my all,” Combs said.

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Smithsonian Magazine - Trove Of Stunning Dance Photography Now Online

Modern dance impresario Alvin Ailey once asked photographer Jack Mitchell to shoot publicity images of his dancers for their next performance without even knowing the title of their new work. Seeing “choreography” in the images Mitchell produced, Ailey leapt into an ongoing professional relationship with Mitchell. “I think that speaks to the trust that they had in one another,” says Rhea Combs, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ailey “knew it would work out somehow, some way.” This partnership, which began in the 1960s, led to the production of more than 10,000 memorable images, and the museum has now made those photos available online.