How Alvin Ailey started the world’s largest modern dance company

dancers performing on stage

AAADT in Alvin Ailey's 'Revelations' (Photo by Paul Kolnik).

Celebrating humanity and the African American experience through dance Feb. 28-29.

Alvin Ailey

Alvin Ailey (photo by Normand Maxon)

Movement can be a tool of defiance — like the thousands of feet that marched for freedom from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

But stillness, or lack of movement, has historically been just as powerful — like choosing to sit at the front of a bus and not be moved by fear or intimidation.

When Alvin Ailey first conceived the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater more than 60 years ago, the world was a different place.

His dream was to put together a company that celebrates the shared humanity of people and the uniqueness of the African American experience. Today, his legendary company — which comes to TPAC for a limited, two-evening engagement Feb. 28 and 29 — has grown into the largest modern dance company in the world.

“I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings, and that color is not important,” Ailey is quoted saying before his death in 1989. “What is important is the quality of our work.”

Although he created 79 ballets over his lifetime, Ailey maintained that his company was not exclusively a repository for his own work. At a time when most dance companies singularly performed the work of the founder, Ailey made it a point to invite choreographers to work with his dancers, exposing them to a variety of dance styles.

Alvin Ailey with three dancers in the background

Alvin Ailey with Judith Jamison, Linda Kent and Dudley Williams. (Photo by Jack Mitchell) Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Inc.

“Mr. Ailey had the vision in the first place to celebrate past, present and future,” says Artistic Director Robert Battle in a 2016 interview. “By having one of the first modern dance repertory companies, he made sure that many voices would be celebrated — not just dancers — but choreographers and collaborators as well.”

Today, the company continues Ailey’s mission by presenting important past works while still commissioning new ones (with more than 235 works by over 90 choreographers).

This blend of techniques — from classical ballet, to jazz, to hip-hop — create performances as diverse and broad as the African American experience itself. And though Ailey sought to create new opportunities for the historically marginalized by giving them a platform, his company still values talent above all else.

“Sometimes once we express that someone is an icon, that kind of takes the humanity out of the fact that this person probably had fears to overcome to have the grace that Alvin Ailey did,” Battle continues. “That’s the reason we’re still here living in his wake.”

man with hand raised and others reaching for him from below

AAADT perform Rennie Harris’s ‘Lazarus’ (Photo by Paul Kolnik).

Ailey’s successor, Judith Jamison, worked for 21 years to bring the company to unprecedented success. She eventually selected Battle to succeed her in 2011.

“I could never have imagined that she would ask me to take the helm of the company,” Battle says. “I remember it like yesterday. She grabbed my arms and said, ‘look into my eyes. What do you think? It’s yours.’ And that was that.”

In 2008, a U.S. Congressional resolution designated the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre as “a vital American cultural ambassador to the world” that celebrates the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage.

Ailey said that one of America’s richest treasures was the cultural heritage of the African American, “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.”

Since the performance in March 1958 at the 92nd Street Y that started it all, the company has performed for an estimated 25 million people in 48 states and 71 countries on six continents — as well as millions more through television broadcasts, film screenings and online platforms.

five dancers with raised arms

AAADT in Ronald K. Brown’s ‘The Call’ (photo by Paul Kolnik)

For Battle, he’s just proud to keep building on such an inspiring legacy.

“I know in my heart that [Ailey] would be thrilled to see that we are pressing on and continuing to challenge how people view this company and what we’re capable of,” he says.

For TPAC’s Feb. 28 performance, the company will perform four works — The Call, Cry, EN and Revelations. For the Feb. 29 performance, they will perform two  Lazarus and Revelations.

Get tickets at, 615-782-4040 and the TPAC Box Office.


Read below for descriptions and sneak peaks of each unique piece.

Reach Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.

Revelations (Feb. 28 and 29)

When Ailey began creating dances, he drew upon his “blood memories” of Texas — the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration. These memories resulted in the creation of his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Revelations (which is the only piece being performed on both evenings of the company’s Nashville engagement). Divided into three sections, his narrative journeys through a mournful “Pilgrim of Sorrow”; the baptismal second section, “Take Me to the Water”; and “Move Members, Move,” depicting an uplifting spiritual community. This enduring classic is a tribute to that heritage and to Ailey’s genius. Using African American traditional spirituals, this suite fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul. All performances of Revelations are permanently endowed by a generous gift from Donald L. Jonas in celebration of the birthday of his wife, Barbara, and her deep commitment to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Lazarus (Feb. 29)

In the Company’s first two-act ballet, acclaimed hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris — whose work includes past favorites Exodus and Home — is inspired by the life and legacy of Ailey. In this Nashville premiere, Harris connects past and present in a powerful work that addresses the racial inequities America faced when Ailey founded this company in 1958 and still faces today.

Cry (Feb. 28)

Alvin Ailey choreographed his signature solo, Cry, as a birthday present for his dignified mother, and created the dance on his stunning muse, Judith Jamison. Mrs. Cooper (Ailey’s mother) and Jamison could both be considered the archetypal Ailey woman – a role that has been passed on to all the women in the Ailey ranks to whom Ms. Jamison has taught this solo. In her autobiography Dancing Spirit, Ms. Jamison wrote: “Exactly where the woman is going through the ballet’s three sections was never explained to me by Alvin. In my interpretation, she represented those women before her who came from the hardships of slavery, through the pain of losing loved ones, through overcoming extraordinary depressions and tribulations. Coming out of a world of pain and trouble, she has found her way-and triumphed.” Ailey dedicated this piece to “all black women everywhere — especially our mothers.” In this three-section solo, the dancer, clad in a white leotard and long ruffled skirt, brings the audience on a journey of bitter sorrow, brutal hardship and ecstatic joy.

The Call (Feb. 28)

In this Nashville premiere, Ronald K. Brown’s joyous mix of modern and African dance — seen previously in GraceOpen Door, and other works — fits the Ailey dancers perfectly, and his themes of spiritual awakening and redemption never fail to inspire. Music for the piece includes: Trio Sonata No. 6 in G Major by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma; Blues for Timme (Live) from the Mary Lou Williams Trio’s album Live at Nice ‘Grande Parade Jazz’; and The Love from Asase Yaa Entertainment Group’s album Drum Love.

EN (Feb. 28)

“En” is a Japanese word with multiple meanings of circle, destiny, fate or karma, and the theme of her new work is about coming full circle. Winner of the Bessie and Arison Awards, Jessica Lang (who is married to Ailey company member Kanji Segawa) makes her choreographic debut at the Ailey company with EN, her 100th ballet. In this Nashville premiere, the celebratory ensemble work is set to an original score by frequent collaborator Jakub Ciupinski and (in Lang’s own words) “reflects on the universal experience of coming full circle and, as time passes, we recognize the people we meet along life’s journey who play a part in the fate and destiny of our lives.”

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