Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Golden Year

Classic Arts Features   Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Golden Year
When Judith Jamison and Sharon Luckman began planning the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's 50th anniversary two years ago, they came up with all kinds of terrific ways to celebrate the momentous event.

Realistically, they thought they would be lucky if they could accomplish half of them. But, in true Ailey fashion, they eventually decided to take them all on. The result: one of the most remarkable years in dance history.

"We want to bring dance to everyone," Jamison says. "We hope to move your spirit. We want to tear out your heart and give it back to you and leave you walking out of the theater floating fifty feet off the ground. If we accomplish that, we will have done our job."

Their plan was to spread the word about the Ailey Company by absolutely every means possible. The anniversary kicked off on March 27, with two major announcements: they had already surpassed their goal of raising $50 million for the endowment, and the US Congress had designated the company as a vital cultural ambassador to the world. Emphasizing its close relationship with local communities, they established the church initiative, which was held the last Sunday in March, where churches and other faith-based organizations celebrated the anniversary during their services, and students from the Abyssinian Church performed an excerpt of Revelations. In June, the company returned to BAM after more than 35 years for a hugely successful week-long engagement, a part of its expanded annual global tour to over 50 cities here and abroad.

Summer brought even more activities, starting with performances and an all-day block party at New York City Center on August 9, sponsored by Bloomberg, which attracted 30,000 people. For the next weeks, Ailey II offered free performances and classes throughout the city's five boroughs _ the one in Brooklyn drew a crowd of 6,000 people - before beginning a nationwide tour to 20 states in October. Billboards, taxis tops and city buses displayed ads leading up to the New York City Center season, compliments of Diageo. Ailey has even managed to arrange for the lights on the Empire State Building to turn gold on Dec 3rd, for the Golden 50th anniversary, in what must be a first for an arts organization.

Nothing could be more golden than the company's annual five-week engagement at City Center. It started with a magnificent gala on December 3 in tribute to the Ailey legacy, with Oprah Winfrey serving as Honorary Chair and Honored Guest. Opera singer Jessye Norman performed that night, and great live music was plentiful throughout the season. For the first time, the hard-swinging Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis, play ed for the company for an entire week that featured Ailey's dances to the music of Duke Ellington.

Moreover, the soulful group Sweet Honey in the Rock performed for Go in Grace, a new work by Ailey member Hope Boykin. The jazz musician Eric Reed conducted singer Ella Mitchell and the Riverside Inspirational Choir in eight performances of Revelations. Kenny Brawner belted the blues for Blues Suite for four nights. And the electrifying Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti created a new blockbuster piece for the entire company. So that audiences become familiar with its history, most evenings opened with a short film, "Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at 50."

That film should just whet the appetit for the Film Society of Lincoln Center's full day of Ailey films on February 1, which will include rare footage of Ailey and company performing from the late 50's on, and even feature Ailey Celebrates Ellington, the 1974 film that relates to this year's collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center. There will also be a collection of historic Ailey posters at the Walter Reade Gallery throughout the entire month of February.

There will also be many other ways to experience the company, with new 50th anniversary merchandise for sale in the City Center lobby and online at, including the gorgeous photographic book "Ailey Ascending" by Andrew Eccles, an adorable Ailey Barbie, designed by Jamison, an Ailey Movado Time Piece, handsome posters, calendars, Hallmark greeting cards, and the children's book "A Young Dancer: A Year in the Life of An Ailey Student" by Valerie Gladstone and Jose Ivey.

The 50th anniversary has inspired everyone connected with Ailey to look back on his or her years with the organization. Among the most crucial to the organization has been Sylvia Waters, who will be honored on December 16 at City Center and recently won a 2008 Dance Magazine award. Ailey appointed her director of Ailey II at its inception in 1974, after she had danced seven years with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Little did they know then that the new ensemble, which serves as a two-year training ground for the company, would become such a formidable influence in schools and communities throughout the United States.

"I've seen a lot of changes in the dancers over the years," Waters says, "Now they are so much more prepared. It's important because they are affecting thousands of kids. They serve as fantastic role models, showing the importance of the arts to everyone. By the end of their two years with us, they've grown into caring individuals and the artists they want to be." At least 80% of the first company members are Ailey II graduates.

A great example of everything admirable about Ailey is the dancer Matthew Rushing, who has been thrilling audiences with his warmth and technique for 17 years. Over the last months, he spent a good deal of time pouring over Ailey history, reading about the dancers and choreographers and all the others who have contributed to the company's story. He realized even more than usual how fortunate he was to be dancing as he rehearsed Boykin's Go in Grace and the new Bigonzetti piece.

But he only truly understood what it means that this dance organization is thriving after 50 years when he attended the Ailey alumni gathering at the Ailey studios in early August. He looked around and saw dancers who had been with the original troupe in 1958 and many others from the years since then. "These people had made history because of Ailey's vision," he says. "We're a vital community, and not just a community of dancers, but also one that includes everyone who has ever been touched by our company. That's what makes our 50th anniversary so incredible."

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