It was springtime in New York City, the year was 1958. On a Sunday afternoon, 27-year-old Alvin Ailey with his group of black modern dancers premiered Blues Suite at the 92nd Street Y and a new company was born. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater transformed the path of modern dance, giving people of color a front-and-center place onstage and a home studio for training. 60 years later, the Ailey organization celebrates Ailey’s legacy and highlights his invaluable influence on society through dance. “This anniversary brings a sense of pride and inspiration,” says Artistic Director Robert Battle. “The company continues to be a great example of African American contributions to the cultural fabric of this country and the world, and speaks to our common humanity.”
A Call to Look Back
The 60th Anniversary season, named Ailey Ascending, knits together past and present, while leaning boldly into the organization’s future. The Company’s New York City Center programming invites audiences to immerse themselves in innovative new work and connect with historic classics. The “Timeless Ailey” program showcases excerpts of Ailey’s works, several of which are rarely seen, and “All Ailey” programs present some of his most beloved ballets including Memoria (1979), Night Creature (1974), and Cry (1971). Both programs end on a spiritual high with Ailey’s masterpiece, Revelations (1960) which will be performed with live music four times this season.
“I believe it is more valuable than ever for audiences to see these stories, these bodies, these people onstage,” says Jacqueline Green, who danced her way through the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, Ailey II and spent the last seven years as an Ailey dancer. “Mr. Ailey died before I was born, so it is important to get all the information I can from his lineage, people like Judith Jamison, to receive their stories and learn not just the steps but the meaning and what he was thinking.”
Premieres and Recent Favorites
Green also performs in several premieres, including Ronald K. Brown’s seventh work for the company, The Call, which is his way of thanking Ailey through movement; Wayne McGregor’s abstract contemporary ballet Kairos (2014); and the Company’s first two-act work choreographed by Rennie Harris, Lazarus. “I wanted to dance for this Company so I could grow in all styles of dance,” describes Green. “In one program we go from ballet, to contemporary, to modern, to hip hop—it is so exciting for me as a performer!”
Several rousing works choreographed by female trailblazers make their return this season. Twyla Tharp’s virtuosic The Golden Section (1983) is part New York City Center’s 75th Anniversary commemoration program on December 11. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s moving work, Shelter (1988), is an edge-of-your seat embodiment of homelessness and displacement. EN (2018), Jessica Lang’s intricate 100th ballet makes its New York City Center debut. And during the “Three Visionaries” programs with works by Ailey, Battle, and Jamison, excerpts will be performed from Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison’s Divining (1984) and Forgotten Time (1989).
Through his personal process of delving into the past, Battle felt inspired to restage the first piece he created for the Company in 2003. “Juba was made at a time when I had no thought or idea that I would ever become the Artistic Director, so this is my way of celebrating the Company’s milestone,” Battle recalls. “It’s extremely meaningful to me to carry on Alvin’s legacy on all fronts, through performance, in education and by deepening our footprint in communities.”
The season also continues to push the art form’s boundaries through innovative technology and digital media. At the beginning of each performance (except December 11), Becoming Ailey, a multimedia piece created by award-winning artists Bob Bonniol and Caryl Glabb of MODE Studios, Inc., will invoke Alvin Ailey’s spirit in our hearts, minds, and onstage.
Welcoming Ailey’s First Artist-in-Residence: Rennie Harris
Coinciding with the 60th Anniversary, the Ailey organization appointed Harris as the inaugural Artist-in-Residence for the 2018/2019 season. Founder of the Philadelphia based hip hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM), Harris is a pioneering choreographer merging street styles with concert dance. Throughout the year Harris will interact with all arms of the organization. In addition to choreographing Lazarus, Harris is teaching hip hop fundamentals and history within The Ailey School and Ailey Arts-in-Education, while also leading workshops for the public through the Ailey Extension. Harris played a role in Ailey’s Choreography Unlocked Festival this past October and is serving as an artistic advisor for New Directions Choreography Lab.
“The fact that this company is still going says a lot about the work and the seed that Ailey planted,” says Harris. “He listened to the voices of other choreographers and allowed them to contribute to his vision.” This premiere marks Harris’s fourth time choreographing with Ailey dancers. His previous works include Exodus (2015), Home (2011) and Love Stories (2004), an acclaimed collaboration between Harris, Jamison, and Battle. “The process with the Ailey dancers is smooth because we just go in the studio and start moving. I call them superheroes because they can do anything!” explains Harris.
During the Lazarus creation process, Harris researched Alvin Ailey’s history and watched interviews of Ailey speaking about his life and work. The hour-long work is a narrative honoring Ailey’s life and a reflection on his transition into death, using Harris’s dynamic hip hop movement vocabulary as a thread weaving the journey together.
“Ailey lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and as I researched I realized this work is not just about his life but all African American lives in this country,” Harris says. “His history is my history.” Harris collaborated with composer Darrin Ross to create an opening soundscape to invoke memories of slavery and pulls in music with sounds from the 60s with Nina Simone and contemporary artist Michael Kiwanuka.
Battle believes it was a natural choice to involve Harris in such an integral way for this season. “Rennie is a brilliant artist and storyteller, he tells hard truths with such eloquence, vitality and urgency,” Battle elaborates. “Hip hop is also a celebration of life and survival, so it dovetails perfectly with Ailey’s life.”
Jen Peters is a graduate of The Ailey/Fordham BFA program. She is a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works and frequent contributor to Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Dance from The University of Michigan.