New York City Center: Alvin Ailey 50th Anniversary Celebration

Classic Arts Features   New York City Center: Alvin Ailey 50th Anniversary Celebration
There are anniversary celebrations and then there is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's 50th anniversary celebration.

Launched on March 27 with all the company's famed pizzazz, it featured a performance by Ailey dancers and students that almost outshone the announcement of upcoming activities. By the time the festivities come to an end in mid-2009, few New Yorkers‹or for that matter, few dance lovers‹will not have been touched by the events, projects and special performances planned for the coming months.

During this period, the company will look back as well as forward. "We're not resting on our laurels," says Artistic Director Judith Jamison. "We're a continually evolving enterprise. Alvin wanted us to go out and connect with people and that's what we do with our school and company. We keep the flow going. We're living in his resonance."

No one‹not even the courageous and visionary Ailey‹could have foreseen the company's rise to the pantheon of dance. He established the troupe to celebrate the African-American heritage and then expanded its mission to present powerful and entertaining works dealing with all aspects of the human experience while enriching the American modern dance tradition. The contributors to its repertory now reads like a "Who's Who" of dance, with Garth Fagan, Ulysses Dove, Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp, Ronald K. Brown, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, just a few of the brilliant choreographers who have staged works for the superb Ailey dancers.

Today, Ailey also tours more than any other dance company, gaining fans everywhere from China to South Africa and from Moscow to Buenos Aires. The Ailey School, which was founded in 1969 with 125 students, now trains over 3,000 boys and girls annually. The Ailey Extension offers classes to the public. Ailey II, the junior company, serves a bridge between the school and the professional dance world.

"The Library of Congress will produce an Ailey archive exhibit," Jamison says proudly, "in celebration of our 50 years, which will be on display at the Library in Washington D.C. for six months and then at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for another six. All our amazing history available in the country's most prestigious library! It's hard to imagine."

It's also hard to imagine how the Ailey organization came up with so many innovative ways to celebrate. "The entire staff got together and brainstormed," says Sharon Gersten Luckman, Executive Director. "We thought of all the things we'd like, and then went into action. It's incredible that we managed to accomplish everything. Our motto has always been dance came from the people and should be delivered back to the people. Everything we've planned for the next 18 months reflects that."

Luckman starts the list with the renaming of West 55th Street at 9th Avenue, Ailey headquarters, "Alvin Ailey Place." She then talks about a Congressional Resolution that will recognize the company as "a vital American Cultural Ambassador to the World." Next comes the church initiative, which was held the last Sunday in March, where churches and other faith-based organizations celebrated the anniversary during their services.

There will also be many more performances, some free. The anniversary season in New York begins with the company's weeklong engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, June 3-8, where it had its base almost 40 years ago. Over the summer, the boroughs will be treated to free performances, plus free classes in West African dance, hip-hop and percussion. They take place from August 5-12, in Staten Island at the St. George Theater, in the Bronx at the Hostos Center for Art and Culture, in Brooklyn during the "Celebrate Brooklyn" Festival, in Queens at Queens Theater in the Park, and in Manhattan at New York City Center (where Ailey presents its annual five-week season) on August 9th, with classes and a block party on West 55th St between 6th and 7th Avenues.

The company will extend its annual U.S. tour to 20-25 cities in 2008 and 2009, and its international tour will include Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Bucharest, Athens, Munich, and Tenerife, Spain. On Feb 1, 2009, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will present an entire day of Ailey films, with discussions with Jamison and Sylvia Waters.

For the New York City Center season, December 3-January 4, Oprah Winfrey will be the Honorary Chair and Honored Guest of the Opening Night Gala. New works planned include a collaboration with the music group Sweet Honey in the Rock, who will perform live onstage. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform the Ailey works that are accompanied by the music of Duke Ellington. Plus, a new short film‹a montage of Ailey history‹will be shown before every performance.

The artist David Michalek, who works in a range of mediums and created the beautiful montage of dancers at Lincoln Center last year, will create six to eight films 10 minutes long, of Ailey dancers that will be displayed on six monitors along the 9th Avenue side of the Ailey building. The David Michalek films will begin being projected March 27, 2008 and will continue for 18 months.

A new art book of photography called "Ailey Ascending: A Portrait in Motion," with new photographs of the company by the acclaimed photographer Andrew Eccles, will be published in November, as well as a 2009 calendar. There will be a new children's book entitled "A Young Ailey Dancer," by photographer Jose Ivey and writer Valerie Gladstone, published in Spring 2009, which documents the life of an Ailey student in classes, rehearsals and a recital, with side trips to her home and junior high school. Hallmark's Ailey greeting cards are out now. Jamison got involved in the creation of the Ailey Barbie doll. "It's really neat," Ms. Jamison says, "I picked her color and her hairstyle and put her in a dress from the 'Wade in the Water' section of Revelations."

To make sure the Ailey company continues to flourish for the next 50 years, the organization is embarking on a $30 million fund-raising campaign to build the endowment from $20 million to $50 million for the 50th anniversary. Campaign Co-Chairs Joan and Sandy Weill kicked off the first phase with a challenge to match all gifts of $1 million and above on a one-to-one basis, up to $10 million.

"There are moments when I'm still in awe of the fact we're celebrating 50 years," Jamison says. "Just as I'm still awed when I walk in our building. We did this, and if anyone deserves credit it's the dancers, the teachers‹everyone who believes in Alvin's legacy."

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