During his all-too-short lifetime, Alvin Ailey was perhaps the most recognizable name in American modern dance. He brought his own experience as an African-American to the dance stage while maintaining a commitment to a broad diversity of dance expression. Even today, more than 12 years after his death, Ailey's vision lives on in the dance companies, the school and the foundation that bear his name.
"Alvin was very specific about his heritage," says Sylvia Waters, artistic director of Ailey II, the professional repertory ensemble affiliated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "He sought to express the beauty and intelligence of people of color. But at the same time, he was not bound by the African-American experience. Being an American, he set out to say, 'Yes, we are all here.' "
Ailey's legacy arrives in the Inland Northwest as Festival Dance in Moscow and the Pend Oreille Arts Council in Sandpoint team up to bring in Ailey II for two performances this weekend. On Sunday afternoon, the company performs at WSU's Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, followed by a Tuesday evening performance at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint.
The Ailey II dancers are selected from the school program at the Ailey School, and Waters, who has guided Ailey II since the company's inception in 1974, says the experience with the company is usually their first professional touring experience. Waters began her own career in 1962 after graduating from the Julliard School. She studied at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and toured Europe in the Langston Hughes musical, Black Nativity.
In 1968, Waters joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and working with Ailey set the direction for the rest of her career. Looking back now, she says she recognizes the time shared with Ailey as a precious gift.
"It was amazing," she says of the experience. "In retrospect, I realize how much I was learning. And of course we didn't know we would lose him so soon. But his legacy and the continuity of that legacy is a responsibility I take seriously. We remember what he said he wanted, and that's what guides us."
Part of that legacy is Ailey's conception of a repertory company. In addition to his vision of modern dance as an expression of diverse styles, he saw his dance company as more than just an outlet for his own creative expression. The Ailey dancers regularly performed works by other choreographers, and this practice ensured the survival of both the company and a whole new crop of choreographers. Ailey saw dances by new, unknown choreographers performed by ad hoc companies of dancers and realized that those new dance ideas would be lost if not given an appropriate outlet, Waters says.
Starting in 1974, Ailey founded his second company, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (later renamed Ailey II), to perform his classic works along with new pieces by contemporary choreographers. Since Ailey's death in 1989, his original vision for the company has guided its future direction, Waters says. "Alvin always had a repertory company, and that was a smart move. We just keep following that game plan, that map that he set out."
Alvin Ailey, Jr., was born in Rogers, Texas, on January 5, 1931, and spent his early years in the nearby town of Navasota. His father was not a part of his life, and the young Ailey worked in the fields picking cotton from the age of five. But his early life held positive memories as well: the strength and perseverance of his mother and the other African-American women in his community; the spirituals and services of the town's Baptist churches; and the blues as played by local musicians. Many of these memories would find their way into his dances later in life.
In 1942, his mother moved the family from rural Texas to Los Angeles, where she hoped to find more lucrative work. There, Ailey heard the music of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and other jazz greats, and he began dance study with Lester Horton, whose racially integrated modern dance troupe was unique for its time. Ailey headed for New York in 1954 and made a name for himself for his athletic dance style as well as for his own unique choreography. In 1958, he formed his own dance company and premiered Blues Suite, drawn from his early musical influences. Two years later, the company performed his work, Revelations, an autobiographical journey through the rural southern black experience. Revelations became the Ailey Company's signature piece and has not lost its power for audiences in the intervening 40-plus years. Ailey II will perform Revelations at the show in Pullman, Waters says.
"For this piece, Alvin used his blood memory. It reflects his early experiences in the church and the underpinnings of the first 12 years of his life in Rogers, Texas. But it's about all of us. It's about hope and pain and despair and hardship and joy. It's really a celebration of life. It taps into the human spirit."
Another Ailey piece, Quintet, is also on the Pullman program. Quintet is the story of a singing group, a la The Supremes, set to the music of Laura Nyro. Waters says that while it tells the story of the group, each one of the five characters has her own story as well.
In true repertory fashion, three pieces by other choreographers will round out the Pullman program, including Takademe, choreographed by Robert Battle to the Indian vocal chants of Sheila Chandra. The program in Sandpoint features two new dances, Aspects of a Vibe and Full On Night, along with Takademe and a sampler of favorites called Ailey Highlights.
Education and community outreach programs are also a big part of the mission of Ailey II, Waters says. "We often do lectures, demos, workshops, master classes and mini-performances, sharing the heritage and history of the company and Alvin Ailey." Outreach efforts such as these work to make dance -- and modern dance in particular -- accessible to audiences who may not be exposed to it often, although Waters says translation is often unnecessary.
"Unlike classical ballet, modern dance comes from emotions, life experience or a physical visualization of the music. We never underestimate the audience, no matter how sophisticated or how underexposed to dance they are," she says. "Alvin used to say, 'Dance came from the people. It should be given back to the people.' It's really a universal language. We've traveled everywhere and there's no language barrier with dance. It's a powerful means of communication, the stuff of life. It's body language."