by Brenda Emmanus OBE
Dance is expression. It’s storytelling, history making…. it’s art. Dance allows performers to reflect our world back at us and allows us to celebrate theirs. Dance is creativity and risk taking….it’s community. Alvin Ailey and his companies encapsulate all that dance is.
In 1958 the brilliant young dancer, director, choreographer and activist formed his company – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His vision was to express his perception of black culture and life – to reflect the African American experience boldly and beautifully through dance.
Ailey created a blueprint for black dancers to express their excellence and a repertoire rooted in blues, jazz, and church. He has been responsible for some magnificent ballets and shows, including his signature masterpiece Revelations which audiences never tire of and performers are consistently inspired by. His dancers create shapes and scenes and stories that have mesmerised audiences for decades, dealing with the social, the political and the deeply personal.
But the magic of Alvin Ailey was not just his obvious genius as an artist, but the creation of a company that allowed black dancers a safe space to thrive and black audiences the opportunity to see themselves on stage. In fact, it goes way beyond that. As Judith Jamison, Artistic Director Emerita of the Ailey company described in a 2019 Ted Talk:
‘He was able to see you in the audience, see me as the dancer and see the connection between us and choreograph works that connected us all. So, you felt he was telling your story, while I felt I was dancing mine. If you were black, African American and a dancer anytime between the 40s and 70s you had much to say because your complete voice was not being heard, and you were not being represented as you truly were. Alvin Ailey had the courage right in the middle of the civil rights movement to present the truth about who we were. That our creativity, our beauty, our intelligence, our talents were an intrinsic part of the panoply of American culture. Our mantra has always been to educate, to entertain and to lift our audiences.’
Alvin Ailey believed that dance came from the people and should be delivered back to the people. His baton of values has been passed on to the scores of dancers that have passed through the company and down to Ailey 2 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s second company who return to the UK for the first time since 2011 for this Dance Consortium tour.
The company’s Artistic Director is the internationally renowned performer and choreographer Francesca Harper, who trained at The Ailey School in New York where her mother, Denise Jefferson was Director for 20 years.
‘Alvin wanted a space for his dancers to feel full, empowered and fully expressed, and that’s what felt so liberating. I could not feel like that in any other rooms in the world’ she declared recently on the Royal Academy of Dance Why Dance Matters podcast. ‘Ailey had to be rooted in excellence especially for people of colour. There is a standard that we have to achieve that I thrived off. It’s very much connected to social justice and recognising that the more excellent we are, the more impact we are making on the world.’
While the great man’s legacy is enough to attract mainstream audiences into renowned theatre venues to experience black dance, Ailey created and inspired original choreography that seduced black people en masse into these spaces too. Pumped with pride and admiration we watch and empathise with the weight of responsibility that comes with the Ailey name. But the performers know what is expected and deliver time and time again.
Ailey has influenced a host of black dance artists in the UK as well as in the US. Long-time principal dancer in The Lion King musical in London, dancer/choreographer David Blake had collaborated with Ailey alumni while living in Jamaica and Los Angeles. He completed his training in the Lester Horton technique at The Ailey School and has taught it in London for over 10 years:
‘My inspiration for choreography came from some influential and prolific choreographers who taught me the importance of embracing my cultural identity, and how to fuse modern dance, Afro-Caribbean Dance and ballet. Alvin Ailey created works using those three genres and developed a blend of movement and choreography that was uniquely his own – all of which had a profound impact on how I saw dance and movement. The Ailey Company is a cultural artefact that is rooted in social progress and empowerment that will influence generations to come, and the Ailey 2 model provides an opportunity for young artists to experience the mental and physical rigour required for a career in dance. It also teaches the importance of preserving a legacy.’
Ailey 2 is also recognised for merging the spirit and energy of the next generation of talented dancers with the creative vision of today’s most outstanding and emerging choreographers. Following a hiatus, the company’s return to these shores is an exciting opportunity to see Alvin Ailey’s legacy celebrated as this group of dance talent takes flight and make their own mark on the world. Francesca Harper has curated an exhilarating repertoire for the tour which includes the Alvin Ailey timeless classic, Revelations.
Ailey 2’s significant outreach work continues throughout this Autumn tour and includes masterclasses, open rehearsals, workshops, and specially devised projects. ‘To see the light bulbs go on and the impact we have when we work with communities is profound’ declares Harper. ‘Those are the moments that we live for.’
While enriching the American modern dance heritage and celebrating the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience Ailey did much for dance on a global scale. Black dance is in rude health. There are a host of companies showcasing black culture and the black experience in a variety of styles of movement here in the UK that would openly give credit to Alvin Ailey. Mesmerising choreography, technical brilliance and a strong sense of cultural pride are an infectious combination that thrills dancers and audiences alike.
UK companies such as Phoenix Dance Company, Ballet Black and Boy Blue are just a few that have evolved over decades and joined a much longer list of black dancers and companies that have changed the landscape, reached personal milestones, even achieving National Portfolio Organisation status and international recognition.
Kamara Grey is the Artistic Director and Founder of Artistry Youth Dance, a company she created to support young black dancers to feel empowered enough to try a range of styles of dance to afford them the skills and confidence to apply to leading dance schools and companies.
Having been transformed by her experience of the Ailey Summer School at the age of 18, she now has several of her students sharing the same experience in New York having participated in workshops and auditions that formed part of a previous collaboration between the Ailey company and Dance Consortium. ‘It will be an exceptional experience because they’ll develop the skills and repertoire to join the main companies in the future if they so wish. It’s so important for all dancers to develop their performance skills beyond the security of the studio.‘
Like the principal company, the presence of Ailey 2 adds to the rich mix of black dance available to see in the UK, and for Kamara this serves another crucial purpose if both black and mainstream audiences take advantage of the opportunity to experience culturally diverse work.
‘There are still perceptions about what black dance does and does not do’ she states. ‘There are these stereotypes that persist and until people from all backgrounds and experiences get to see the work of all these excellent companies then these stereotypes cannot change. There has certainly been some improvement in the landscape of dance, that must be acknowledged. Pioneers like Alvin Ailey and fellow New York black dance company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, have contributed to the visibility of black dancers. However, there is still work to be done.’
Dance in Britain has evolved through interactions with others from around the world and black dancers and choreographers have stamped their mark on the history of dance in the UK. They may tell different stories but share the vision of their celebrated American cousins – to bring their art to as many people as possible. Like Ailey alumni and the current performers, they too deserve to be empowered and fully expressed – and as lovers of dance we will benefit greatly.
Brenda Emmanus OBE is a Broadcaster and Journalist. She was awarded an Honarary Doctorate from the University of the Arts and is Chair of the Board at Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures.