by Lindsey Martin, WTOP10-TV reporter
Over half a century ago Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, an organization committed to spreading messages of diversity through dance. His revolutionary choreography is perhaps most famously realized in dance masterpiece ‘Revelations’, a work born from Ailey’s own ‘blood memories’ of growing up in 1940’s rural Texas.
During the almost 60 year existence of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, its members have traveled the world, performed for presidents and maintained their status as one of the most prestigious dance organizations in the United States of America.
Today, the messages behind Ailey’s choreography continue to be relevant and inspirational across a myriad of social contexts. In a modern word full of technologically induced hyper-stimulation and empty politicking, dance, primal and clear, cuts through the noise to profound effect.
Dedicated to spreading messages of cultural acceptance through extensive touring and public outreach, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey II echo the legacy of their namesake.
Eleven years after The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was established, The Ailey School opened in 1969, and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, now known as Ailey II, was founded in 1974. The Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble was established with the intention to provide the most promising students from the Ailey school the opportunity to tour and perform around the world.
Picked by Alvin Ailey himself, Sylvia Waters oversaw the creative direction of Ailey II for 38 years. Waters had come from studying dance at the prestigious Juliard School, before joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company as a dancer in 1968.
“I’d known Alvin for some time before I joined the company, and I’d seen the company grow during the first ten years of its existence. I was in school, but I saw those early performances at the WMHA as a student, and it was mesmerizing,” Waters reflects.
“Alvin was very, very supportive. I mean he was my mentor. I learned so much from him.”
Now Ailey II’s Creative Director Emeritus, Waters leads The Ailey Legacy Residency, educating college-level students on the technique and history behind Alvin Ailey’s creative heritage.
Khalia Campbell is a dancer in her first term with Ailey II. Formally a student at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and the Dance Theater of Harlem, Campbell became an apprentice for Ailey II prior to becoming a full-fledged member of the ensemble.
“Ailey is like a family. They want it to be in-house, so they like you to be in the school first and then you know, move your way up the ranks,” she explains.
At the time these interviews are taking place, Ailey II’s dancers and management are in their fourth and final week of a very physically demanding tour. They had performed in the Bahamas and 11 different states across the USA.
Troy Powell has been affiliated with the name Ailey since age 9. He trained at the Ailey school as a child, danced with Ailey II, and then The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Powell now holds the position of artistic director for Ailey II. Powell worked alongside Sylvia Waters for 15 years before becoming artistic director. “It takes time,” he says calmly. “Even as professional dancers we’re always working on our technique, we’re always working on our ability, and most of all we’re always working on ourselves,” said Powell.
One needn’t look much further than ‘Revelations’ to gain an understanding of Alvin Ailey’s original intentions for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and its various subsidiaries. The piece is laden with themes of poverty and racism, but also of strength, community and celebration.
“He grew up in the depression, so everything was at an all-time low,” tells Powell.
“He considered himself as living on the other side of the tracks where everything was just down and out, and his outlet was Revelations. His outlet was dance.”
Perhaps this is the reason the choreography to ‘Revelations’ is passed on to each new generation of Ailey dancers, and is embraced by audiences around the world.
“We hope to really touch audiences,” says Powell.
“We hope to really change their perspective.”
Ailey II performed to a sold-out Waterman Theater at SUNY Oswego on Wednesday, Nov. 2.