Alvin Ailey: Bringing the African-American cultural experience to the concert stage

Photo by Eva F. Maze, courtesy of Ailey archives

Alvin Ailey founded what would become one of the world's most famous modern dance companies. From its earliest days, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed dances that reflected the African-American cultural experience to concert dance audiences. Ailey's iconic work Revelations continues to resonate nearly 60 years later. The company has performed for more than 25 million people on six continents


Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas, during the Great Depression. At age 11, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother and began taking modern dance classes from Lester Horton, choreographer and creator of the Horton technique. In Horton's racially integrated studio and company, Ailey developed a reputation as a strong performer with a commanding stage presence. When Horton died in 1953, 22-year-old Ailey briefly took over the company.

A year later, Ailey moved to New York City to perform in the Broadway show House of Flowers. Over the next four years, he trained with some of the biggest names in modern dance: Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Anna Sokolow, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In 1958, Ailey created his own troupe—a modern repertory company focused on giving the black cultural experience a voice in concert dance. The company's first performance at the 92nd Street Y, of Ailey's sultry Blues Suite, was an instant success with critics and audiences.

Two years later, Ailey created his choreographic masterpiece, Revelations, which the company traditionally performs every season. Audiences connected with the work's emotional range and theatricality—qualities that would become staples of Ailey's choreography. In 1965, at age 34, Ailey retired from performing to focus solely on choreographing and directing the company. In addition to his own work, he incorporated older master works and new commissions into the company's repertory. Ailey dancers have performed works by Ted Shawn, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, José Limón, Anna Sokolow, Talley Beatty and Donald McKayle, among others.

In 1969, Ailey established a dance center in New York City. Over the next 20 years, he grew the school and the company's international reputation. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1989 at age 58.

The "Take Me to the Water" section from Revelations. Photo by Nan Melville, courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

The Work

Ailey's choreography was often emotional and narrative, drawing from a variety of dance styles and musical influences.

Blues Suite (1958) Danced to blues songs, Ailey's first full-scale work is set in a Southern saloon. He combined the linear style of Horton technique with social dance, ballet partnering and Jack Cole–style jazz dance in this sultry and often humorous work.

Revelations (1960) Based on what Ailey called his “blood memories" of growing up in rural Texas, the piece captured African-American cultural heritage and spirit through a series of vignettes set to spirituals. In the work's central section, “Take Me to the Water," a couple is baptized.

Cry (1971) In this piece, dedicated to black women everywhere, a woman in a long white skirt expresses anguish, strength and joy through sharp gestures, suspended balances on one leg, spinal undulations and spinning. Cry was created on Judith Jamison, who performed with the company, 1965–80, and was handpicked by Ailey to succeed him as artistic director.

Style

A student of Lester Horton, Ailey incorporated Horton technique into his choreography and The Ailey School's curriculum. Horton technique works to lengthen the muscles and build overall strength, targeting specific areas of the body through codified exercises. Fundamentals include flat backs, hinges (a sharp bend of the knees while leaning back) and lateral Ts (a sideways position on one leg in which the body makes a “T"; the torso and arms extend in one direction and the working leg in the other). Signature Horton movements are easy to identify in AAADT's repertory today.

The Legacy Lives On

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has continued to thrive long after Ailey's death, under the direction of, first, Judith Jamison and, since 2011, Robert Battle. The Ailey School acquired a new building in Manhattan in 2004 and currently trains more than 3,500 dancers each year through its programs for children, pre-professionals and recreational dancers. Revelations remains the company's choreographic crown jewel, and it holds the record for the most widely seen modern dance piece in the world.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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