Home Sweet Home: visiting Alvin Ailey HQ

In the lead up to the UK tour in 2005 Melanie Nix visited the home of Alvin Ailey which was purpose built in 2002.


Melanie Nix

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There can be no doubt as to the purpose of 405 West 55th Street. . . stunning black and white images of beautiful dancers adorn the building’s sides and the words ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’ fashioned in bold lettering stand proudly across the front. And proud they understandably are. In 2002 an old TV studio on the corner of 9th Avenue and 55th Street, handy for both the university and the city centre, was demolished and a state of the art centre to house both Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Ailey II was built in its place.

As a dancer one can’t help feeling humbled by the space and all it signifies. Suspended at the back of the foyer is an enormous wall hanging printed from an image taken in 1969 depicting Alvin Ailey himself and current artistic director Judith Jamison. A rope holds viewers a respectful distance away from the hanging and the hole in the floor through which it falls, descending into the room below and thus spanning the full height of two rooms. Majestic and inspiring one realises early on that this is more than just a space allowing dancers to train and rehearse, but a shrine to the man who made it all happen and to the woman who continues to keep the Ailey spirit alive within the dance world of today.

The building itself, although new and forward thinking in its use of materials and design, is steeped in history. Alvin Ailey filmed his first TV special in the studio which once stood on this very site. His desk stands in the main company’s Green Room and countless archive photos and posters adorn the walls, including those of the bright and airy studios. A portrait of Judith Jamison painted by Geoffrey Holder (choreographer of Dougla performed by Dance Theater of Harlem in the Dance Consortium Tour 2004) hangs on one wall and a colossal tile mosaic of Jamison dancing dominates another. I can’t think of a British company which still has such first hand contact with its roots  – by which I refer to the fact that Jamison is only the second artistic director of this empire and, as a legendary performer with the company herself, was hand- picked by Ailey to take the helm upon his death.

Having held the reins for fifteen years and with no signs of slowing up, the students and dancers operate within a building where adoration for their director seems to permeate even the brickwork.

The Space

It was with perhaps a pang of jealously mixed with admiration that I surveyed this thoughtfully designed space. The architects have designed the building with the comfort of all who use it in mind. The studios are light, many boasting floor to ceiling glass windows . . . . so just imagine, if you will, the pleasure of standing at the barre and looking out over the skyline of New York. . . . of knowing that you, too, have a place within that skyline. Now imagine it at dusk with the lights of New York City blinking all around and I think you will agree that it must be a truly inspiring place in which to create.

An IT pod fondly referred to as The Egg, screens off a semi circular bank of seating opposite a cupboard concealing TV monitors where students can watch archive video material to facilitate learning. Slivers of internal windows allow staff and visitors to peek in and watch classes without disturbing the activity inside, although I imagine when Ms Jamison does her rounds (she aims to visit each floor once a day)  there is a disturbance of sorts as muscles clench and legs are pushed that extra bit higher for her benefit.

Ailey II, the younger company, containing twelve of the ‘most talented’ dancers from the school, also gain from an impressive studio theatre. The theatre, which can be divided to become two rehearsal studios by a sliding partition wall, comes complete with an up to date control box and comfortable seating which can be pushed away and stored beneath a viewing balcony when not in use.

Compounding the impression that money here was no object, the building also houses a pilates and rehabilitation studio including motion capture technology to help minimise injuries and speed the recovery of those already sustained.

The staff, too are grateful to have at last moved home. An open plan core office is surrounded at its circumference with the senior staff offices, again many with floor to ceiling windows which aim to bring the outside in and soften the boundary between the activities of the Ailey building and the hustle and bustle of West 55th.

And the price tag? A hefty $54 million, obtained from various sources including sponsorship, corporate funding and grants.

Settled in

In 2005 we saw the first UK tour since the move to the new building and once again Alvin Ailey wowed UK audiences.

Two years later we are early awaiting the return of this stunning company who have now truly settled into their new home, a hub of creativity and lifelong learning in all aspects of dance.