Every company has what is known as a “signature piece,” that is, a workwhich expresses something about the artistic direction and the spirit of thecompany. For the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater that piece is Revelations.Choreographed and set to traditional music, Revelations was first performed atthe Ninety-second Street YM-YWHA New York, NY., January 31, 1960. The leaddancers were Joan Derby, Minnie Marhsall, Merle Derby, Dorene Richardson, JayFletcher, Nathaniel Horne, and Herman Howell and the soloists were Nancy Rediand Gene Hobgood.
The music was performed by the Music Masters Guild Chorus ofthe Harlem Branch YMCA under the direction of Frank Thomas. The piece asoriginally performed consisted of danced portions and music interleudes groupedunder three broad headings, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “That Love My Jesus GivesMe,” and “Move, Members, Move.” The work was revised extensively a monthafter its first performance and was again given at the Ninety-second StreetYM-YWHA. Revelations has been seen in every country that the company has touredand has been universally acclaimed. Born in Rogers, Texas on January 5, 1931,Alvin Ailey spent his formative years going to Sunday School and participatingin The Baptist Young People’s Union. At age twelve, he moved to Los Angeles and,on a junior high school class trip to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, fell inlove with concert dance.
Ailey began his formal dance training inspired by theperformances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the classes with LesterHorton that his friend, Carmen de Lavallade, urged him to take. Horton, thefounder of the first racially integrated dance company in the US, was a catalystfor Ailey as the young dancer embarked on his professional career. AfterHorton’s death in 1953, Ailey became the director of the Lester Horton DanceTheater and began to choreograph his own works. In New York, Ailey studied withmany outstanding dance artists, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, CharlesWeidman, Hanya Holm and Karel Shook, and took acting classes with Stella Adler.A versatile performer, Ailey won a number of acting roles while continuing tochoreograph and dance professionally.
In 1958, Ailey founded his own company,the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. During the Company’s first decade, Aileycreated approximately twenty new ballets, among them Hermit Songs andReflections in D. These were followed by The River, The Lark Ascending, LoveSongs and many others. Although he created some seventy-nine ballets, Aileymaintained that the Company was not a repository for his work exclusively. TheCompany’s varied repertory includes works by dance pioneers as well as emerging,young choreographers. The Company in its forty-year history has performed morethan 180 works by sixty-seven choreographers. Since its inception, the AlvinAiley American Dance Theater has performed for an estimated 19,000,000 people inforty-eight states, sixty-eight countries and on six continents.Anothercomponent of Ailey’s commitment to education has been the Company’slong-standing involvement in arts-in-education programs, including freeperformances, mini-performances, lecture/demonstrations, workshops and masterclasses in communities in the US and throughout the world.
Ailey died onDecember 1, 1989 – and with his death, American dance lost one of its mostluminous stars. Judith Jamison is now the Artistic Director of the Alvin AileyAmerican Dance Theater.