Every company has what is known as a “signature piece,” that is, a work which expresses something about the artistic direction and the spirit of the company. For the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater that piece is Revelations. Choreographed and set to traditional music, Revelations was first performed at the Ninety-second Street YM-YWHA New York, NY., January 31, 1960. The lead dancers were Joan Derby, Minnie Marhsall, Merle Derby, Dorene Richardson, Jay Fletcher, Nathaniel Horne, and Herman Howell and the soloists were Nancy Redi and Gene Hobgood. The music was performed by the Music Masters Guild Chorus of the Harlem Branch YMCA under the direction of Frank Thomas. The piece as originally performed consisted of danced portions and music interludes grouped under three broad headings, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “That Love My Jesus Gives Me,” and “Move, Members, Move.”
The work was revised extensively a month after its first performance and was again given at the Ninety-second Street YM-YWHA. Revelations has been seen in every country that the company has toured and has been universally acclaimed. Born in Rogers, Texas on January 5, 1931, Alvin Ailey spent his formative years going to Sunday School and participating in 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 in love with concert dance. Ailey began his formal dance training inspired by the performances of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and the classes with Lester Horton that his friend, Carmen de Lavallade, urged him to take. Horton, the founder of the first racially integrated dance company in the US, was a catalyst for Ailey as the young dancer embarked on his professional career. After Horton’s death in 1953, Ailey became the director of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and began to choreograph his own works.
In New York, Ailey studied with many outstanding dance artists, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm and Karel Shook, and took acting classes with Stella Adler. A versatile performer, Ailey won a number of acting roles while continuing to choreograph and dance professionally. In 1958, Ailey founded his own company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. During the Company’s first decade, Ailey created approximately twenty new ballets, among them Hermit Songs and Reflections in D. These were followed by The River, The Lark Ascending, Love Songs and many others. Although he created some seventy-nine ballets, Ailey maintained that the Company was not a repository for his work exclusively. The Company’s varied repertory includes works by dance pioneers as well as emerging, young choreographers. The Company in its forty-year history has performed more than 180 works by sixty-seven choreographers.
Since its inception, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has performed for an estimated 19,000,000 people in forty-eight states, sixty-eight countries and on six continents.Another component of Ailey’s commitment to education has been the Company’s long-standing involvement in arts-in-education programs, including free performances, mini-performances, lecture/demonstrations, workshops and master classes in communities in the US and throughout the world. Ailey died on December 1, 1989 – and with his death, American dance lost one of its most luminous stars. Judith Jamison is now the Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.