Alvin Ailey, black dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was born in Rogers, Bell County, Texas, on January 5, 1931. His mother, Lula, was seventeen when he was born; six months later, her husband abandoned them. By all accounts, Ailey and his mother were very close. They earned a living by picking cotton and doing laundry and domestic work after they moved to Navasota and then Los Angeles, California. Later in his career, in honor of his mother's birthday, Ailey choreographed a solo work, Cry, that was performed by his leading dancer and the artistic director of his company, Judith Jamison. The piece was dedicated to "black women everywhere." As a child, Ailey spent time drawing and attending the True Vine Baptist Church. He was introduced to performance dance on a junior high class trip to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Later, he saw performances by Katherine Dunham and took dance lessons from a member of her company.
Ailey was profoundly influenced by the work of Lester Horton, a choreographer and teacher in Los Angeles. Horton's company is believed to be the first racially integrated dance company in the United States. He drew inspiration from American Indian dance and Japanese theater, and those inclusions greatly impressed Ailey. In 1949, Ailey gave up studying romance languages at UCLA and began to study with Horton. He made his debut as a dancer in 1953 and took over the company when Horton died that year. In 1954 he made his Broadway debut as a featured dancer in Truman Capote's House of Flowers. The play ran only four months, after which Ailey decided to stay in New York to study ballet, acting, and modern dance with Martha Graham and others. From 1954 to 1958 he appeared in a number of musicals both on and off Broadway. He performed in The Carefree Tree (1955), played opposite Mary Hinkson in Harry Belafonte's Sing, Man, Sing (1956), and was the leading dancer in Jamaica (1957), starring Lena Horne. Ailey also appeared in the film Carmen Jones (1954), directed the revue African Holiday (1960), and codirected Langston Hughes's off-Broadway song-play Jericho Jim Crow (1964). He acted in Call Me by My Rightful Name (1961) and the Broadway production of Tiger Tiger, Burning Bright (1962). He choreographed both Samuel Barber's opera Antony and Cleopatra, the first production at the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Theater, and Leonard Bernstein's Mass for the debut performance of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. On one evening in March 1958, at the 92d Street Y in New York, Ailey and six other dancers performed three works, including his first choreographic success, Blues Suite. That performance led a New York Times dance critic to name Ailey one of the six outstanding artists that season. The performance was also the genesis of his dance company, which subsequently performed for more than fifteen million people around the world. Beginning in 1962, the State Department sent the company to Southeast Asia and Australia on the first of several successful foreign tours.
Ailey retired from dance in 1965 but continued to devote himself to choreography and his company. The Ailey Troupe became a resident company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1969 and remained there for three seasons. In 1970 it became the first American modern-dance company to tour the Soviet Union since Isadora Duncan in the 1920s. The Ailey company received a twenty-three-minute ovation in Leningrad. In 1972, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center became the company's official school and home of the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, the company's junior troupe.
Before 1963 the company was composed exclusively of black dancers; when Ailey integrated, he was criticized by some black Americans. In a 1973 interview with Ellen Cohn in the New York Times Magazine Ailey explained that he had "met some incredible dancers of other colors who could cut the work," and that he had run "into reverse racism." To maintain an all-black company would be "like saying only French people should do Racine or Molière." Critics also accused Ailey of being too overtly theatrical, but he explained in the same interview that his performances were based on the concept of total dance theater. He wanted to put "something on stage that will have a very wide appeal without being condescending; that will reach an audience and make it part of the dance; that will get everybody in the theater."
Though most of Ailey's choreography is rooted in African-American history and culture, including jazz, blues, Gospel music, and folk heroes, many of his works are developed from pure movement, abstract and plotless. Moira Hodgson refers to Ailey's choreography as lyrical and theatrical. Theatrical works such as Blues Suite and Revelations, his best-known work, combine drama and dance, while abstract pieces such as The Lark Ascending and Streams are stylistically classic. Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors from President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and the New York City Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts. His dance honors also include the 1987 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, the 1979 Capezio Award, and the 1975 Dance Magazine Award. He received honorary doctorates from Princeton University, Bard College, and Adelphi University, and in 1976 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Ailey died in New York on December 1, 1989, of blood dyscrasia.