Ailey Founds His Dance Company Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alvin Ailey presented his first modern dance concert, strengthening the cultural diversity of American modern dance and integrating ballet, jazz, and modern dance forms.

Summary of Event

Billed simply as “Alvin Ailey and Company,” an ensemble of six black dancers that included Charles Moore, Claude Thompson, Jacqueline Walcott, Clarence Cooper, Nancy Reddy, and Alvin Ailey were joined by guest artist Talley Beatty at the Ninety-second Street Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) in New York City. This premiere concert performance by the Ailey dance company, on March 30, 1958, broadened the scope of American dance through the debut of works that reflected multicultural influences. As would be the case in future performances, the Ailey company’s debut included pieces that portrayed aspects of the African American experience. Modern dance;companies Choreography;modern dance Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater [kw]Ailey Founds His Dance Company (Mar. 30, 1958) [kw]Dance Company, Ailey Founds His (Mar. 30, 1958) Modern dance;companies Choreography;modern dance Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater [g]North America;Mar. 30, 1958: Ailey Founds His Dance Company[05810] [g]United States;Mar. 30, 1958: Ailey Founds His Dance Company[05810] [c]Dance;Mar. 30, 1958: Ailey Founds His Dance Company[05810] Ailey, Alvin Horton, Lester Beatty, Talley De Lavallade, Carmen[Delavallade, Carmen] Jamison, Judith

In addition to the development of multicultural thematic material, Ailey’s personal movement style burgeoned in his first concert appearance. Ailey had teamed up with Ernest Parham Parham, Ernest to recruit dancers from the cast of the Broadway show Jamaica Jamaica (Arlen, Harburg, and Saidy) (1957) in order to present the concert. Dance Magazine Dance Magazine (periodical) critic Doris Hering Hering, Doris commented on the energy, technical prowess, and versatility of the dancers, with particular mention of guest artist Talley Beatty.

Alvin Ailey, Jr., was born and reared in Rogers, Texas. His parents separated when he was very young, and in 1942 Ailey moved with his mother to Los Angeles. Although Ailey previously had studied tap dance and some ethnic forms, he began professional dance training in 1949 with West Coast choreographer Lester Horton. By 1953, Ailey was performing with the Horton company and made his debut in a revue titled Bal Caribe.

Horton died in 1953, and soon thereafter Ailey took over much of the responsibility of company direction. Original members of the Lester Horton Dance Theatre who later danced with the Ailey company include Carmen De Lavallade, Joyce Trisler, and James Truitte. Ailey’s most famous work, Revelations, Revelations (Ailey) premiered on January 31, 1960, at the Ninety-second Street YMHA. This signature piece of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which many maintain is a masterpiece of modern dance, premiered less than two years after the Ailey company’s concert debut.

Dance critic Selma Jeanne Cohen Cohen, Selma Jeanne reviewed the work favorably in Dance Magazine and specifically noted the vivid theatrical characterizations created by Ailey. On November 27, 1960, the Ailey company performed Revelations at the Clark Center of the West Side Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in New York City. In her review, Cohen noted the enthusiastic audience response.

According to the program notes, Revelations explores the “motivations and emotions of American Negro religious music.” The suite is set to a series of American spirituals and reflects universal themes of deliverance and joy. Revelations contains images that depict much of the Southern life of the nineteenth century. The dance can be viewed as Ailey’s interpretation of American spirituals. Revelations quickly became a signature piece for the Ailey company and it was included in nearly every concert for many years. James Haskins noted that in December, 1988, the dance continued to elicit rave reviews from critics, twenty-nine years after its premiere.

During the fall of 1960, several months after the premiere of Revelations, Ailey based his company at the Clark Center. During this period, Ailey augmented the company’s repertory with the works of other choreographers. It was unusual at this time for a choreographer to include other artists’ dances in a company repertoire, but Ailey viewed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a purveyor of all types and styles of modern dance, including works that represented a broad spectrum of cultural differences.

Ailey integrated his dance company at a time when black nationalism and separatism were becoming popular. Ailey kept his company integrated even though he received some negative criticism. By maintaining integration within the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ailey helped eliminate stereotypes; he showed that dance movement is culturally based rather than racially intrinsic. Within Ailey’s dance theater, white dancers perform the blues, black dancers perform classical ballet, and Asian dancers execute jazz combinations.

Six years after the premiere of Revelations, Ailey’s vision was to maintain a company of twelve to sixteen dancers who would perform a varied repertory of modern dance works. He also envisioned a school in which to train dancers. By the beginning of the next decade, he would find those visions fulfilled: In 1971, the choreographer established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Twenty years after it was founded, the company school enrolled more than twenty-five hundred students each year and sponsored a junior company, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble.


Perhaps the greatest impact Ailey had on the field of modern dance was his propensity to bring black traditions and black artists into the mainstream of American dance. Since its inception, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has served as a means to present works by black choreographers. In addition to several of Talley Beatty’s dances, the company presented pieces by modern dance pioneers Katherine Dunham Dunham, Katherine and Pearl Primus Primus, Pearl . Also included on the company roster have been works by Ulysses Dove, George Faison, Louis Johnson, Bill T. Jones, Donald McKayle, and Billy Wilson.

Alvin Ailey.

(Library of Congress)

Ailey also created one of the first successful modern dance repertory companies to perform the works of many different choreographers. The dance movement originally created by Ailey has become part of the vocabulary of contemporary dance; the images he choreographed have become an irrevocable part of American culture.

Ailey’s choreography maintains universal appeal and developed from many sources. The African American experience served as source material for many of Ailey’s works, including Revelations; however, scholars and critics agree that his choreography cannot be simplistically categorized. Rather than only representing black dance, the works exist as part of the total multicultural American experience. Just as American culture is syncretistic, the repertory of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater represents a spectrum of diversity.

Like the pioneering efforts of Katherine Dunham, who fused concert dance forms with Caribbean movements and steps, Ailey’s style was a fusion of modern dance, ballet, and black dance forms. Ailey’s choreography has enjoyed much popularity, and many of his signature movements have become standard dance vocabulary. The Ailey style is inextricably woven into the fabric of modern dance. Ailey has commented that his particular fusion of dance genres includes aspects of ballet, modern, folk, jazz, music visualization, and both Asian and Spanish forms.

Dance scholar Brenda Dixon Dixon, Brenda states that only certain sections of specific Ailey dances can be classified as black dance. She further emphasizes that it is important to view certain Ailey works within an appropriate frame of reference. Dances by Ailey that do reflect certain black aesthetic and cultural principles should be viewed within the appropriate cultural context. For example, Love Songs, Love Songs (Ailey) choreographed in 1972, is a solo song cycle based in the tradition of the vocalized black ballad. Love Songs illustrates the black tradition of song-as-survival.

In 1962, Ailey decided to integrate his company, expanding the cultural roster of his dancers as he had expanded the troupe’s repertory with the inclusion of many styles of modern dance. The company began to represent not only black dance but also the entire field of modern dance, which included much cultural diversity.

Just as his choreography and style were distinctly American, Ailey added the word “American” to the name of his company, and the troupe became known officially as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in the mid-1960’s. The company continued to represent the United States on many national and international tours. In 1964, the troupe embarked on its first European tour and received enthusiastic responses, especially in Hamburg, Germany, where one performance elicited sixty-one curtain calls. After that tour, Ailey retired from dancing and focused his energy on choreography and artistic direction of the company.

From 1969 until 1971, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was based at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. During this time, Ailey created fewer than ten new works, including Mary Lou’s Mass and his famous tribute to the African American woman, Cry. Cry (Ailey) This solo was created for company member Judith Jamison, who later would direct the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater after Ailey’s death in 1989. Cry was representative of the black woman’s life in white society. Moreover, the dance was representative of the oppressed everywhere. Jamison became renowned for her performance of the solo, and the piece continues to have universal appeal.

The City Center in Manhattan became the home for the company in 1971. Around this time, Ailey began to revive modern dance classics for inclusion in the company repertory. Dances by prominent black choreographers such as Donald McKayle, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Talley Beatty appeared on concert programs. Ailey’s intent was to maintain older works for future generations rather than lose classics of modern dance. These pieces also reflected the roots of the African American experience and significant contributions of black choreographers and dancers. In addition, Ailey presented choreography by Mexican-born José Limon and modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn.

Two years before his death, Ailey received the Scripps Dance Award at the American Dance Festival. Upon receipt of the award, Ailey reaffirmed his role as a conduit for American modern dance. He stated, “I am part of Isadora Duncan. I am part of Martha Graham. I am part of Doris Humphrey. I am part of Asadata Dafora. And I am part of Lester Horton, who made a boy, an eighteen-year-old athlete in sweat pants, feel important.” Modern dance;companies Choreography;modern dance Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Susan. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. New York: William Morrow, 1978. A wonderfully visual book with many excellent photographs of Ailey’s dances. The text mainly addresses Ailey’s more popular works. Excellent section on Revelations. Includes a chronology of Ailey’s work through 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeFrantz, Thomas F. Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Looks at Ailey’s choreography as distinctively African American and discusses the importance of the emergence of black dance on the mainstream stage. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance from 1619 to Today. 2d rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 1988. A definitive book on black concert and vernacular dance forms. A valuable resource for the student of history and dance. Emery presents a comprehensive history of black dance within historical, social, and cultural contexts. Excellent notes, bibliography, and index. Limited black-and-white photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haskins, James. Black Dance in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1990. Although categorized as juvenile literature, Haskins’s text presents a thorough survey of black dance in America. Included are brief biographies of prominent dancers, choreographers, and companies. An annotated videography provides excellent film resources. Select bibliography and index. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kraus, Richard, Sarah Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon. History of the Dance in Art and Education. 3d ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Offers a comprehensive view of all major dance forms through historical and cultural perspectives. A brief biography of Ailey is included, and a chapter on black dance in America is informative and detailed. Endnotes for each chapter are included. Bibliography, index, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorpe, Edward. Black Dance. New York: Overlook Press, 1990. Though not a thorough compilation of black history and dance, the book contains some interesting chapters. Chapters on Asadata, Dafora, black ballet, and black dance in Britain contain information not found in other sources. An overview of Ailey’s career is included that focuses on his choreography and company. Excellent illustrations. Index.

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Categories: History