On Jan. 5, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated what would have been the 85th birthday of the man who founded the world-renowned company in 1958 and changed the face of American dance forever. The event featured a panel of four dancers who knew, inspired, were inspired by and loved Ailey while also devoting themselves to protecting and preserving his legacy and helping realize his vision.
Entitled “Celebrating the Life of Alvin Ailey,” the panel of former Ailey dancers included Artistic Director Emerita Judith Jamison, Ailey II Artistic Director Emerita Sylvia Waters and former AAADT principal Donna Wood, And who better to moderate a discussion by three some have dubbed Ailey’s muses than Renee Robinson, a 30-year veteran of the AAADT who, when she left the company not long ago, was one of the last members to have worked directly with this brilliant, warm and generous man?
Together, these women have had a major impact on the Ailey company as performers breathing life into his artistic vision and as administrators, educators and coaches guiding young company members, aspiring dancers and audiences through a repertory noted for its stylistic diversity, choreographic brilliance and heartfelt impact on audiences from Manhattan to Moscow.
With contagious camaraderie, the women touched on everything from how they joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to what it was like to rehearse and perform Ailey masterpieces such as “Revelations” and “Blues Suite” or gems by the seasoned and emerging choreographers Ailey has always welcomed. They spoke of the bus tours in the old days, the one-night-stands in small towns across America and how the company was like a tight-knit family.
Waters recalled how she first joined the company, saying, “I saw the first ‘Revelations’ (1960) and I saw the first ‘Blues Suite’ (1958). And in those days I saw a lot of Alvin and he saw a lot of me because many of us performed at the Kaufman Auditorium in the 92nd Street YMHA. So when I returned to America after dancing Maurice Bejart in Brussels, I ran into Alvin at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing!’” Chuckling, she added, “That’s how I came to join the company. “
Wood, who joined a few years later, described how after high school graduation in Dayton, Ohio, she convinced her parents to let her postpone college so she could come to New York and pursue her dream as a dancer. They gave her two weeks. In that time she auditioned for American Ballet Theater, Joffrey and a few other companies to no avail.
“They told me I was too tall,” she said smiling. Then, following a friend’s advice, she took class at Ailey, where Ailey and none other than Katherine Dunham spotted her. But nothing happened immediately so she returned home and kept calling to see if there were any openings. Finally, a few weeks later, her dream came true. Wood noted that one of the first dances she was asked to do was Dunham’s “Choros.” “From there it came on like a landslide,” she said. “‘Choros,’ ‘Revelations,’ ‘Dance for Six,’ ‘Toccatta’—everything. I had to learn six ballets in six weeks.”
Jamison recounted her legendary story about the unsuccessful audition for Donald McKayle in which she was spotted by his friend Ailey, who tracked her to the home of Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, where she was staying for a time, and the invitation to join the company that would become her home.
Of learning “Revelations,” she said, “I felt so awkward at first. I came from a tradition of counting the steps. Well, everyone who sees ‘Revelations’ thinks, ‘I can do that.’ Just try it. Try to move it and embed yourself in it quickly. You can’t. But that’s what I had to learn. Ailey dancers are very famous for learning a dance quickly and performing it right away. Choreographers are always stunned when they come to mount works on the company and think they’re going to have to spend the next week teaching steps slowly only to find two days later that not only are the dancers doing the steps, but they’re performing them.
“When I joined, one of my teacher was James Truitte, who I had seen do ‘Fix Me, Jesus’ with Minnie Marshall. I was a bit star struck, but Jimmy told me, ‘Get over it! Get out there and do it.’ My experience was a rush. You don’t feel your feet are on the floor until all of a sudden you’re out there on stage doing ‘Congo Tango Palace,’ ‘Blues Suite” ‘Revelations’ and whatever else you learned in a few short weeks.”
Waters said dancing “Revelations” was just that—a revelation, “I had seen a few incarnations of ‘Revelations’ and finally saw what I considered the definitive version, the crystalized version, in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1964. I was on tour with another company, and I was extremely homesick and I remember seeing ‘Revelations’ danced by Loretta Abbott, Hope Clark and some other early company members I knew. The work spoke to me in a way it never had before. So later when I learned it, I came to it feeling I knew what it was, but dancing it showed me that ‘Revelations’ meaning was much deeper than that.”
Wood agreed, saying, “When I started learning ‘Revelations,’ I had never seen anything like it, I remember being in the rehearsal studio, leaning on the piano and watching these three incredible men do ‘Sinner Man.’ Now here I was in the company and my mouth was on the floor. I’m watching them and they’re doing these side falls, spins, and I was not just mesmerized and my heart was pounding.”
Being part of the Ailey company was, itself, a revelation, the three said, sharing ways Ailey helped them evolve and grow. “Alvin expected you to give your personal best,” Jamison said, noting that where other choreographers gave you steps and counts, Ailey was different. “Alvin invited you to personalize the movement. He always had beautiful imagery and talked to you like you were the only one in the room. At first it was intimidating to have a certain kind of freedom, but it liberated you and made you a better dancer.” The other ladies agreed.
“We were a big family then and we still are today,” Jamison said. “This was a spirit Ailey encouraged.” Then, looking around the studio in the marvelous headquarters that Ailey once envisioned, and Jamison, as she attests, many others helped make possible, she added, “I can hear Alvin in this building all the time, and what I see happening is the current Artistic Director Robert Battle is continuing that legacy. He’s done some remarkable things these last five years, and he has some amazing things coming up.”