He founded America’s most famous black dance company and for 31 years designed dances that set in motion the themes of love, loneliness and faith against the backdrops of his youth: black gospel churches, honky-tonk bars and Southern towns where jazz reigned. When Alvin Ailey died of a blood disorder, at 58, last week in New York City, he had done something no dancemaster except Katherine Dunham ever achieved: He had integrated black culture with formal dance and persuaded the world to watch.
As a dancer, Ailey combined raw physicality with catlike grace. As a choreographer, he created 79 astoundingly diverse ballets, ranging from his gospel master-work Revelations to For Bird—With Love, about Charlie Parker. “He was a complicated person and in constant flux,” said dance professor James Truitte, “but being a friend is what he did best.”
Ailey’s intensely personal visions took shape in the dusty town of Rogers, Texas, where he was raised by his mother, Lula, after his father abandoned the family. Ailey once recalled the images of his childhood as “sharecropping, picking cotton, people being lynched and segregated schools.” Two places influenced him most profoundly: the True Vine Baptist Church, where a preacher spouted fiery sermons, and the Dew Drop Inn. whose “funky people,” boozing and easy hoofing inspired his 1958 Blues Suite. In 1942 Lula moved to L.A., where a teacher later took Ailey and his junior high class to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. At 18, he was introduced to Lester Horton, choreographer of an integrated dance company. Ailey joined the troupe, then moved to New York and founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at 27. He quit dancing himself in 1965 but relentlessly expanded his troupe’s repertory to include multicultural ballets that have been seen on six continents. He also tirelessly created and guided dance schools for children and the blind. Ailey said he hoped to show “that color is not important, that what is important is…a culture in which the young are not afraid to take chances and can hold onto their values and self-esteem.” He succeeded beyond any dreams that might be expected of a kid in Rogers, Texas, but then, as dancer-choreographer Geoffrey Holder said of him last week, “He was our friend, and we were all innocent children together.”